Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.

Believe whatever people say about SNCF

I’ve written a lot about traveling to the south of France in the last few years as I’ve been spending a lot of time with my extended family. It’s a straight shot from Geneva to Marseille – a 3-hour hop on the TGV, France’s high-speed railway, which can go over 300km/hr, and then a quick change onto a regional train and I’m “home” in just over 4 hours. Like most things, it’s great when everything works, but then Murphy’s Law kicks in and all hell breaks loose. This weekend was one of those… the trip going down took over 9 hours!

France’s rail system is run by the state-owned SNCF and it covers pretty much the whole country with lines connecting to Italy, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. It is probably one of the fastest and most convenient ways to get from Geneva to France, including Paris in the north and Marseille in the south. The only issue is that when the lines aren’t working, it really pisses people off, especially when the company doesn’t communicate or plan for the disruptions. Here are some photos (all taken with an iPhone) and a bit of the story…

On Sunday, I was planning to take the train and only received an email the night before telling me that my train from Geneva to Marseille was cancelled. Instead, I would need to take bus from Bellegarde, 20-minutes outside of Geneva, to Lyon, the main connection point to get an onward connection. The only problem was that there wasn’t any information about the leg from Geneva to Bellegarde. I arrived at the train station on Sunday morning trying to find any indication of how I would get to Bellegarde. I found out (accidentally) that the line to Bellegarde wasn’t working and that I had to catch a bus instead – and at that point I was told to run as the bus was leaving.

Just outside the St. Julien train station were things are already looking bleak.
Just outside the St. Julien train station were things were already looking bleak.

When I finally got on the bus, like everyone else, I was dazed and confused (remember this was also around 8am on a Sunday). We arrived at St. Julien a small station outside Geneva where we were told this was the end of the line and had to wait for half an hour for another bus which would take us to Lyon – actually no one really knew and when we finally left St. Julien, we were told that this bus would take us only up to Bellegarde where we would have to catch another bus to Lyon. I could tell that people were already losing patience. The normal 20-minute train trip from Geneva to Bellegarde ended up being a 2-hour trip on two buses.

Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!
Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!

At least the sun was shining when we arrived in Bellegarde which helped to calm people down – it was going to be a nice Sunday after all. This feeling didn’t last very long. Stepping off the bus many of us went to the train official to get the latest word – he didn’t know anything other than just telling us to wait for the bus. But in a split second he turned to everyone and said that a train was actually leaving from Bellegarde to Lyon RIGHT NOW! So everyone started to panic, especially because many of them were trying to get back to Paris for work, etc., and we all ran to catch the train.

Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.
Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.

The train from Bellegarde didn’t end up going to Lyon as we were told (surprise surprise). Instead, we were being driven to somewhere else to catch our connections. At Culoz, a small stop in the middle of nowhere, most of the people got off the train to go to Paris. A few of us stayed on to catch our connection in Valence, a 2-hour trip on a regional line, to the south of France. Once we were back on the main line, all went smoothly – I changed at Valence for a 1-hour trip to Marseille and then made my connection right away for another hour-long trip to finally get to Sanary Sur Mer.

Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.
Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.

I wasn’t too fazed by the whole thing and actually found it to be quite an adventure – a little like my 22-hour trip from Bangkok to Vientiane. The mind-blowing thing was that I can understand that this can happen in Southeast Asia, but I was in one of the most developed countries in the world and where other countries looked at as an example. The lack of service, misinformation, and poor communication by SNCF was just something I couldn’t believe even after being told by French people.

Finally reached my destination just in time to see the sunset at the beach.
Finally reached my destination and just in time to see the sunset at the beach.

One of the nicest things in the whole trip was how people bonded over the whole situation (until it was time to run to their next connection) and talked to each other. It’s something that you don’t see nowadays where people are on their phones, iPods, or tablets. I hope this type of kinship continues because it’s going to be tested with a lot of construction and upgrades taking place from now until the beginning of summer along the southern train lines – check the TER SNCF website for more updates… and make sure to triple check the times for trains (or buses).

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