In a previous post, I covered the difficulty of booking a rail journey down to Switzerland, struggling with the lack of through ticketing. The journey involved undertaking six different legs for which there was no consistent passenger proposition:
- London to Paris – Eurostar
- Transfer across Paris – RER
- Paris to Lausanne – TGV Lyria
- Lausanne to Martigny – Swiss Intercity
- Martigny to Le Châble – St Bernard Express
- Le Châble to Verbier – the bus
For a Londoner, Eurostar journeys are fairly common these days so I’ll speed through this leg and bring you to Paris Gare du Nord. Unless you manage to time your journey to connect to the more infrequent trains from Lille, travelling further than Paris means you need to transfer across Paris to another station. TGV Lyria services to Switzerland depart from Gare de Lyon.
Booking through Eurostar, the connection is 59 minutes. Though it isn’t very clearly marked, a section on the Eurostar website advises you to use the RER rail system to connect between the two as it’s quicker than the Metro – the booking process also fails to show clearly that you need to buy a separate ticket for this.
Paris Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon:
- RER line D takes 11 minutes (2 stops).
- Metro line 4 & line 14 takes 16 minutes (7 stops plus a transfer).
As the connection is only 59 minutes there’s no dithering so try to buy your ticket on the Eurostar train; unfortunately, navigating the RER network is not as simple as the Metro, the signage is not as user-friendly and service routes not as clear. At Gare du Nord there was only one sign that mentioned Gare de Lyon, so you can’t rely on it for wayfinding. Down on the platform, there is no reassuring signpost saying which platform to use for Gare de Lyon, only the train’s destination station is shown on the signs.
Having found the correct RER platform, be careful not to lose your luggage down the gaping hold between the platform and train.
Continuing the signage theme, on arrival at Gare de Lyon, navigating your way from the RER to the main station concourse and correct platform can be very confusing. For a start, there are multiple exits from the mainline station. As a visitor, all you want to see is a big sign pointing to the TGV trains but you will instead need to look out for Grand Lingues. As you’ll see on the video, it’s really not obvious; furthermore, if you use the wrong exit, as I did, you’ll end up in a busy underground concourse where your only escape seems to be taking an escalator up to a random platform and walking back past the trains to the main, visitor-friendly, concourse with it’s famous Train Bleu bar/restaurant.
Signage in general at Gare de Lyon was quite patchy: services and retail locations are located in one of 3 Halls but trying to find your way between Halls will inevitably lead to you missing your train. Helpfully, Gare de Lyon retains a central, recognisable large departure screen so grab your Starbucks and board your train.
Platform numbers are not displayed until shortly before the train departs leading to a rush of passengers towards the relevant platform when it appears. If you get caught in this rush, do not forgot to ‘composter’ (validate) your ticket in the small yellow machine at the platform entrance. Passengers in France are required to validate tickets before travelling but the only notification you will see of this is a small instruction printed on your ticket.
Having composted your ticket, it’s time to find your carriage. Look our for a black Composition des trains display which indicates the carriage layout. Often, two TGV train sets couple to form one train: it is not possible to walk between these two train sets; therefore it is very important that you board the correct part – it is just assumed you know this fact.
I was in Carriage 12 so had a long walk from concourse to carriage – joined by a large number of other passengers trying to board in the short time before departure. There was a bit of a scrum to board, followed by a quite stressful game of musical chairs on board: all TGV passengers have an allocated seat; however, the TGV Lyria carriage had two seat numbers for each seat so many were already occupied. In the confusion some passengers demanded that others vacate the seat they both had been allocated, whilst others just sat anywhere and refused to move. The on board staff were only partially present during this episode and seemed surprised that there was any confusion.
Left to fend for ourselves, I made for my allocated seat and then spend the rest of the journey on the receiving end of some disdainful stares from my seat competitor.
As we were approaching our final destination, Lausanne, it became apparent to me that the train was running late: this was of concern as the timetabled connection was only 8 minutes. It was a surprise to me that no announcement was made of the late running given that the were many connections to be made at Lausanne. I was advised by the train manager that the train I needed to board w0uld be on the adjacent platform so I gathered my things and stood by the door ready to run across when we arrived. Sure enough, as the train pulled in, there was a train next to ours; however, as I was at the extreme end of the platform, I couldn’t see a departure board showing where this train was going. Other passengers seemed equally unsure so I was left to climb up onto the train whilst calling down the platform to a uniformed member of staff to confirm this was the correct train.
As someone unfamiliar with the Swiss network, I still felt uncertain as the train pulled out of the station – this didn’t make for the most reassuring experience.
Apart from the huge climb up onto the Intercity train to Martigny, the only comment I have about this service is how empty and spacious it seemed, the passenger coaches had few facilities but there were an awful lot of them.
Arriving at Martigny, I was expecting the experience the famously integrated Swiss timetable seamlessly connecting to the branch service up to Le Châble (the St Bernard Express); however, I instead had to wait 40 minutes on a bleak station as it got dark and cold. The St Bernard train was sat there on the platform, looking bright, warm and with a comfy seat but the doors were locked sadly.
This waiting time did give me a chance to look around the station though. I noticed that I wouldn’t have seen a departure screen at Lausanne because the only screen appeared to be right in the centre of the platform, where you’d come from the subway. This is handy for passengers commencing a journey at the station but not really that helpful for passengers changing trains; additionally, the departure screen only showed the main stations along the route. You really have to know your trains in Switzerland!
Finally able to board the St Bernard Express, this much more local service took me up into the mountains in quite a short time. It was too late by now to use the more exciting option of the cable car up to Verbier so I had to rely on the bus. This is worth mentioning here as upon arrival at Le Châble, the bus was literally on the platform, with the destination screen brightly facing the train. After a long day’s travelling it was extremely welcome not to have to think or look for a bus stop.
As I described on my last post, buying the tickets for this journey is not simple, similarly, navigating the route involving 6 separate sections can seem daunting, with the added stress of carrying your luggage along the way too. I started out undertaking this journey to compare whether it would be any easier than flying down to somewhere like Geneva and then taking a transfer bus or train to my final destination. On this comparison, I think an infrequent passenger would find the airline option less challenging and far easier to arrange. However, the rail journey can be rewarding and provides for almost continuous interesting scenery – I would not want to discourage anyone from undertaking the trip. If you are a confident traveller you’ll work out how to cross Paris and how to change trains speedily but the system is definitely not calibrated towards the visitor: whether it be the requirement to composter your ticket; the bizarre seating allocation; the inconsistent passenger signage; or the lack of through ticketing. My journey proved that there is a long way to go until we have a standardised passenger experience across even just two European countries.
Author: Liam Henderson