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April 2, 2008
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Train vs Plane

Toulouse - Amsterdam 1000 km sprint

Toulouse Montabiau station - ready to depart.
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Toulouse and Amsterdam happen to be exactly 1000 km apart.

I recently needed to travel between the two cities to accompany my wife, Alison, on a business trip. Flying is, of course, the obvious choice: a straightforward non-stop journey with KLM or Air France generously scheduled at 2 hours. The catch, when I came to book, was that, at just 2 days notice, the cheapest fare stood at a swinging £650 one way (and no cheaper return). Alison's ticket would be paid by her company, so no problems there. But I was on my own. Ouch.

Casting around for alternatives, I wondered whether the journey was feasible in a day by rail. A call to Rail Europe confirmed that it was - just, with changes in Paris and Brussels. At £160 single, the fare wasn't exactly a bargain, but still much more manageable than going by air. E-ticketing hasn't hit Europe's rail system yet, so I paid an extra tenner for guaranteed overnight delivery and went off to pack my bags. The following day, shortly before I was due to set off to the airport for my Toulouse flight, an envelope containing a wad of paper tickets was duly handed to me by a courier. I was on my way.

If everything went to plan, I would depart from Toulouse by train at breakfast time next morning, while Alison would spend the day at her business conference, breaking off in time to catch the 5pm flight to Amsterdam. We would arrive, as if by magic, within 15 minutes of each other at Amsterdam Schiphol, and had arranged to rendezvous at the station meeting point ready to swap tales.

So much for the theory, here’s how things went:

08:00. After a night in an overheated business hotel I’m happy to walk to the station to catch some morning air. Unfortunately it’s foggy and Toulouse is dank and cold as I make my way through the historic centre, its famous pink brick muted and drab.

08:30. Arrive at Toulouse Matabiau station. Coffee and croissant from Paul, the fashionable bakers, lift my mood and the sleek TGV positively gleams under the station's vaulted ironwork canopy. All is very orderly with crisply uniformed staff marshalling the steady tide of travellers. I find my reserved seat and settle in.

09:12. Precisely on time, the long train eases from under the high station roof, slips through a sprawl of sidings, and rolls out from the city centre at a lazy pace. Time was when the interior of a French TGV seemed the very epitome of rail luxury. It’s still not bad, but my – second class – carriage is, I deem, acceptable rather than a joy: it’s pretty much on a par with Eurostar or the better UK intercity companies. My fellow passengers look like they’ll be interesting company though. Most of the rest of the carriage has been taken over by a boisterous group of trade unionists off to march in Paris. Making up the numbers are a pair of Spanish girls, an old couple, and a businessman already tapping at his laptop.

10:15. Just past Agen, I’m beginning to wander how on earth we’re going to get to Paris on time. We’re rumbling along at a respectable but hardly exciting 60 mph or so, through a wintry landscape of fruit orchards shrouded against the frost in dew-damp polythene sheeting. The sky is a sullen grey, but the fog is beginning to lift – dispelling my fears that Alison’s flight could perhaps be grounded.

11:30. Ranks of hard-pruned vines and a long rattling bridge over the Garonne signal the imminent arrival of Bordeaux. We’re in and out quickly with hardly a glimpse of the town. More union activists pile in when we stop briefly.

12:00. This is more like it. We’re now barrelling along at a tremendous pace through the verdantly rolling scenery of Cognac country. Perhaps taking their surroundings as their cue, the union contingent have uncorked wine bottles, laid checked cloths on the tables and spread out an impressive array of baguettes, pâtés and cheeses into which they’re now tucking. The pièce de resistance: someone produces a whole leg of ham from their backpack and proceeds to carve it with a terrifying hunting knife.

14:30. My admiration for the French rail system is fully restored. The dedicated high speed track has swallowed the 550 km from Bordeaux to the capital in just three hours and we glide into Paris Montparnasse with clockwork precision. I’m not so sure about the capabilities of the prospective marchers though: the wine’s still flowing and for the last hour they’ve been singing rugby songs increasingly raggedly - although they did break off for a while to mass-serenade the bewildered Spaniards.

15:10. An escalator brings me up onto the cold and gloomy concourse of the Gare du Nord. The metro transfer across Paris from Montparnesse was an annoyance but unproblematic - a long walk underground to the platform after a queue for my ticket, then 14 slow stops, but on a direct train. At the Gare du Nord soldiers are patrolling with guns and dogs, hardly a cheery sight. Time for more coffee and pastries.

15:30. I find the Thalys high speed train for Brussels and take my reserved seat. The furnishing – in rich reds and black - is plusher than on the TGV and the carriage is as quiet as a library. Apart from myself, it’s just business people and civil servants – many, from their hushed conversations, connected with the European Commission. For the second time today we leave exactly on time.

16:15. I get a call from Alison. She’s left her conference and is in a taxi heading for Toulouse airport. She’s slightly stressed – she’s running a few minutes later than she planned and the traffic’s building into the rush hour – but she should make it. I look out the window: dour flat fields and a motorway; I’m somewhere near Lille.

17:00. We pull into Brussels punctual to the second. Way to the south, Alison’s plane should be roaring down the runway at Toulouse. I descend from the carriage into cold Belgian twilight and a steady drizzle. Bruxelles Midi is a station I know extremely well, but familiarity does not lend fondness. The main concourse is a troglodyte warren, while the elevated platforms are left exposed to the elements. I have 30 minutes to kill and know there’s nothing enticing, so I queue for the ATM.

17:30. I board my final train. It’s a through service to Amsterdam and is already very crowded. Thankfully my seat hasn’t been taken and I squeeze next to a young French IT jock with short-sleeve shirt and ear glued to mobile. It’s another Thalys service, but this time noisy and high-spirited - lots of young people and luggage racks crammed with backpacks. We tunnel under the centre of Brussels and then zigzag on elevated tracks through a cluster of high-rises. Heavy traffic is snarled on roads slick with rain. I’m suddenly fed up. While the first two legs of the journey were quite fun, I’ve had enough, I just want to be there now.

19:00. Alison’s plane should have landed but we’re well behind schedule. Without the dedicated tracks of the French network, our Thalys ‘express’ has had to mix in with the crowded commuter traffic of the busy Dutch railways. The lights of one small town after another roll by out of the darkness - between frequent unexplained halts to progress. You can tell its Holland by the size of the bicycle racks at each station.

19:30. Alison calls – ‘Where am I?’ ‘Near Rotterdam’ I answer – running 20 mins late and with a thumping headache.

20:15. We finally grind into Schiphol’s underground station, over 35 mins behind schedule. Tired and irritable I escape the carriage and take the escalator to the airport concourse. Alison’s there waiting for me. It’s an easy 15 min hop by train to Amsterdam’s main station but I’m done. We go by taxi.

The verdict: By train it took 11 hours to cover the 1000 km between Toulouse and Amsterdam. By plane, it took 2 hours 45 mins (including time getting to the airport). While the train was much more comfortable on a per minute basis, the journey time was simply too long to be enjoyable.

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