The Joys of Train Travel Planning in France
If there’s a greater test of website usability, it’s trying to find out information from a site that’s in a language you don’t speak.
I came across this issue this morning when trying to check some things related to our holiday. We’re going hiking in France, and have opted to get the train down there rather than fly – a greener solution, although if I’d done my research properly and realised it would include a four hour journey on regional trains in the south of France, I might have opted to fly.
The reason I was checking was that the preliminary itinerary was recently sent by the holiday company and there was something contradictory about the information they’d given – we had to get a coach for part of the journey, but it wasn’t entirely clear where from, so I decided to take a look online and see what I could find out.
The route incidentally is Waterloo to Lille Europe, then change onto the TGV for Marseille. Then from Marseille we head on the regional train to (according to our itinerary) Guillestre-Montdauphin.
As it happens, the French railway company SNCF have a website aimed at UK websites, called sncf.co.uk funnily enough. On the left of the site is the statutory box for booking tickets. In hope, I tried to use it as a timetable. Unfortunately the whole thing uses pulldown menus – you can’t just type in your station. In hope I tried the “Any Station” option and submitted. Which was then it spent some time trying to find my train…
After a nice pause, it helpfully told me that “No trains run after the time indicated”… But did take me to a new webform where I could actually enter the details of the station I wanted to go to.
Which hit upon problem 2 – “There is no service to the town of departure and/or arrival.” It appears that the travel agents have told us the wrong station name. It’s not Guillestre-Montdauphin, but actually Mondauphin Guillestre which I was duly prompted to enter.
Unfortunately the results I got back were then completely different to what I’d been given my the travel agent. Instead of a morning departure, it gave me a nice journey departing mid-afternoon, and putting us on a sleeper train (in a way, this wouldn’t have been a bad idea given the length of the journey…) No other options were presented – no chance to find out anything earlier.
Hmm I thought. Okay, lets try just going from Lille Europe, where we get off the Eurostar. Nope, same problem.
Righto I thought. This ain’t working. Lets try another option… Let’s go to SNCF’s main webpage and see what can be found – like timetables for instance.
Now it has to be said that my French isn’t very good. I actually did German for my GCSEs, and stopped doing French in my third year at high school. However it seemed likely that the website for the French state train company, might just have a pretty obvious journey planner on the front page of its website.
Amazingly it doesn’t. There’s plenty of links extolling the virtues of the TGV (even without the aid for Google Translate I can tell that!) but nothing blindingly obvious for getting train information.
Now call me funny, but you’d think most casual visitors to the SNCF website would be interested in train information. It seems pretty popular in the UK – almost every railway company website in Britain has a pretty obvious set of boxes for checking train times if nothing else. Transport for London recently redesigned its entire website to put passenger information at the heart of it. And when you go to National Rail‘s website, there it is. Even Network Rail – an infrastructure company after all – put a prominent link on their front page.
Yet SNCF seems to think it’s not that important. Instead you have to click on the slightly cryptic “voyages-sncf.com” website, which isn’t entirely obvious (and which Google Translate cunningly describes as “The agency of voyage online”.
Unfortunately www.voyages-sncf.com suffers from the same cunningness as sncf.co.uk in that it completely fails to find the train I wanted… However it does at least have a French translation (it’s notable that I didn’t manage to find a UK train company which provides any services in a language over than English – with the notable exception of Arriva Trains Wales, who of course provide Welsh).
Well if it’s linked from the SNCF website, I couldn’t find it. Instead, with the help of another website, I found I had to drill down in the regional – TER – section of the website.
At this point you’re presented with a map – you have to select your region, either by map or by pulldown menu. Of course I’m an ignorant tourist who doesn’t know quite which region he’s going to (cue much scrabbling and hunting for maps). Turns out I want Provence Alpes Côe d’Azur, where I’m finally presented with a box so I can enter my departure point and my destination.
Cunningly it finds the train – which it claims leaves five minutes before our itinerary says, and has no arrival time. And no apparent way to find an arrival time. Although I can select some options whereby I can tell it I don’t mind cycling for 20km before getting in my car for another 10 minutes, or something equally mindless.
In complete desperation, I find an interactive map for the region, where I stumble around and finally find the timetable for the line I want. Which finally tells me the information I want to know – the journey is part bus from Marseille to Meyrargues. This arrives at 1755 and there we board the train for the rest of the journey.
Half an hour of pain and suffering and I finally have the information I need. The itinerary by the way, is wrong because it says we arrive at Meyrangues five minutes seven minutes before we even leave Marseille, and departs from there an hour later. Goodness knows what they were doing there. And the problems with the SNCF online journey planner? Digging around online, it apparently can’t cope with a journey where you need to change twice. As our journey requires three changes, we didn’t stand a chance…
Almost makes you think SNCF don’t want people travelling on their trains…