The Importance of Being Earthbound

In 2019, a group of French rail enthusiasts decided there was only one way to get to the Tokyo Olympics, and that was by train. With all those wonderful places en route, why not? 

2020 put a dent in their plans like they did in most people’s, but the organisation they founded, Once Upon A Train, is still going strong. 

Last week, Ian put me in touch with one of OUAT’s organisers, Anna, so that we could discuss working together. At the end of our conversation, she invited me to represent 196 Destinations at OUAT’s assemblée générale (AGM) on December 10th

“It’s in Paris,” she said. “But of course you can always join us on Teams.”

There was absolutely no chance I was going to yet another Teams meeting when I could be in Paris, meeting new people, sitting in a cafe by the Seine, wandering through arrondissements, maybe getting some Christmas shopping done. 

They say people accumulate a sleep debt when they don’t sleep enough. They get gradually groggier and less happy the longer they go without catching up on it. I think I may have accumulated a travel debt in the last couple of years. 

The second the phone was down, I pulled out my computer and settled into the once-familiar routine of stringing together arrivals and departures with visions of hopping on an express to London after work on Friday night. The Avanti West Coast service from Manchester to London takes around 2.5 hours, the Eurostar not even that. I’d spend the evening in London catching up with a friend, find a Couchers host for the night before carrying on to Paris and trundling home contentedly on Sunday night, or perhaps even Monday morning if the connections worked out that way. 

As it turned out, nothing worked out that way.

First bad news: Eurostar Snap, my go-to way of crossing the Channel, hadn’t survived the pandemic. Introduced in 2016 to get rid of unsold tickets, Eurostar would allocate you an undersold train on the day of your choice and you’d get to go to Europe for £25. Perfect. Or it was until the travel industry got decimated by the universe grabbing us all by the shoulders, plonking us into our metaphorical chairs and telling us all to sit down and listen for two years, anyway. 

Gare du Nord, the Paris Eurostar terminal

Oh well. There are always the regular tickets. Next stop, Eurostar’s main website, where I discovered the cheapest possible option for a Friday out, Sunday home trip would leave me £269 out of pocket. That’s without the trip from Manchester to London. 

Apparently the only strain these trains were going to be taking was on my bank account. Never mind. There’s more than one way to cross a 22-mile-wide body of water. I like ferries anyway. They remind me of family holidays to France, driving down to Dover or Portsmouth, clunking on to the boat and throwing our things in a cabin in time to sit down to dinner with the sunset shining through the restaurant windows and the excitement of waking up in Cherbourg or Calais still to come. 

Direct Ferries is a great place to compare operators and times. Brittany Ferries was sold out, but DFDS’ prices weren’t that bad – £46 return for a four-hour night trip from Newhaven to Dieppe. That didn’t include a cabin but never mind, I’ve slept in weirder places than ferry lounges. Unfortunately, most south coast ports still need a change of train in London if you’re coming from the north of England. By the time I’d got myself to the south coast by whatever combination of rail, coach and ride-share necessary, I’d have been on the road for over five hours and not even got out of the UK yet. 

Ferries make a lovely alternative if you can’t get the train.

Never mind. I’ve taken longer trips. I like long trips. Practically bouncing off my chair with excitement at the thought of going somewhere, I opened another tab for the Trainline to sort out Manchester to points south and was rudely awakened when it told me the cheapest fare was an open return for £116.60.

Some creative split-ticketing later, I’d managed to whittle it down to £58 for two singles by changing at Stoke, Birmingham, London and Lewes. This, however, meant the trip was going to take over 6 hours even if all the trains ran perfectly on time.

UK trains are no longer a simple case of book ticket, board train, rumble into destination, either. About 50% of them seem to get cancelled, and they’ve been known to be so badly delayed that by the time the passengers finally arrived, they ended up locked in the station the station because the staff had given up in disgust and gone home. I’d have to leave plenty of spare time. Add to that a friend who works in rail warning of planned strikes on Sunday 11th, and the whole thing was starting to look hopeless. 

By this point, I felt more like a gap-year student who’d never been out of the country before than a fairly seasoned traveller, and was wondering why it suddenly seemed like taking the train from Manchester to Shanghai in 2009 had felt easier to organise than a weekend in Paris did in 2022. Never mind. There was still the coach, or Blablacar

Why did getting to Outer Mongolia in 2009 feel easier than getting to Paris in 2022?

The National Express could get me to London for under £25. It was an overnight service that set off at ten to midnight on Friday and got in until 6am the next day. At least I wouldn’t have to find a host in London, although I might just have to find a chiropractor instead after six hours asleep in a coach seat. Megabus had one that would get me in at 10:30pm, but considering that the ferry left at 11 from a completely different city, that wasn’t much help. 

Rideshare site BlaBlaCar had a shortage of helpful drivers wanting to split petrol costs, but it did have a bus service from London to Paris departing at 8:30 am on Saturday morning. It would arrive in Paris at 7pm, which meant I would completely miss the AGM and basically have to get off the bus, turn round and get straight back on it again to go home. Put otherwise, it would be a solid 24 hours in a succession of coaches for literally no payoff. While that still wouldn’t be the longest I’ve ever been in a coach (that very dubious honour has to go to the time 18-year-old me spent 4 days stuck in a Greyhound between New York and LA), it’s still way longer than I ever want to spend on one again. 

So, the train was off the rails, the ferry was sunk, Blablacar was a no-go and the brakes had been put on the coach. Setting off after work on Friday night and needing to be back, slept, showered and vaguely coherent on Monday morning meant that I only had around 55 hours to complete the trip. Without my feet leaving the ground, and without quick, simple rail connections, it was going to be – I’m not going to say impossible, because it’s possible. It’s just prohibitively expensive, exhausting, and wouldn’t leave me any time to actually enjoy being there. 

Visual interpretation of the inside of my head after trying to plan this weekend.

So, the inevitable question – why don’t you just fly? 

Well, for one thing, turning up by air to rail-promoting OUAT’s AGM would make me the discount equivalent of the type of person who turns up to COP27 in a private jet. 

For another, even flying’s not as easy as it once was. Ryanair’s Friday flights are sold out; Easyjet’s are £80 one way with no luggage. In one way it’s probably a sign that rail is catching up at least a little in terms of price and convenience.

After two years of being ravaged by Covid, travel (in the UK at least) seems to be struggling to get back on its feet. Flights and trains both are fewer and further between, and far more prone to delays. Like the frequent empty shelves in the supermarket, it feels that everything is in shorter supply, more squeezed, more difficult. For rail to be a genuine alternative, trains need to be cheaper, more frequent and have good connections. That’s especially true for people who don’t live in London or near the south coast. 

The last, most important reason is that today is the 7th of December and there are still green leaves on the trees in my local park. Until yesterday, I’d barely worn my big winter coat because it was too hot. Two weeks ago, I took a photo of myself sitting at a Christmas market in front of a giant Santa, slurping mulled wine in a strappy dress. 

I can’t do much about it, to be honest. There is a world full of things far bigger and more powerful than me, making far more of a mess than I do. But I will do what I can, for now, even if that means missing out on things I dragged myself through the last two years by dreaming of getting back. 

Never mind. There’s still Teams. And 52 weekends in 2023 to have fun with…

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