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Date: 03/02/2011

Journey from Hell

Six hundred travellers who boarded the 4295 night train from Strasbourg to Portbou last Sunday evening, had little idea of what kind of journey they were really about to embark on. The train departed from the Franco-German border at 9.30 p.m. continental time and was scheduled to arrive just on the other side of the border in Spain, at Portbou, at 8.30 a.m. the next morning, but what started off as a normal train journey across France, turned into a gruelling calamity of errors and obstacles that lead to the passengers arriving some 13 hours later than planned, almost twice the time it should have taken. The list of incidents included unforeseen weather conditions, tardy French drivers, SNCF track blockages, a faulty engine and even a rabble of belligerent drunks.

The train had been due to split a couple hours after it departed in Lyon, where half would continue on to the French Riviera and the rest to Spain, but when the train arrived at Belfort, only 75 miles outside of Strasbourg, SCNF decided to replace the driver for health and safety reasons, as he'd been working a full 3 days which is far beyond what any driver is allowed to do in one go. This would have been fine except that the replacement driver didn't show up until 6 a.m., almost 6 hours later, within which time 3 passengers had to be ejected from the train for aggressively drunken behaviour while the rest of the train passengers were left, quite literally, in the cold, trying to guess what was happening.

The engine of the 4295 also failed, which took 3 hours to replace and another train on the line that had broken down caused further delays. "We really weren't given any information," exclaimed one passenger, "they brought us packed lunches, but apart from that, the whole operation was appallingly organised. It was very cold at the stops and everybody on board became incredibly agitated."

The train finally reached Lyon at 5 p.m., where some of the passengers heading to Portbou were taken to another train whilst those destined for Nice and the French Riviera stayed seated. Those travelling onto Spain arrived at Perpignan at 10 p.m., almost 24 hours after their journey began and passengers headed for Portbou were then offered taxis. One passenger worked out that the 900 mile, 24-hour journey ran at an average speed of just 37.5 kilometres an hour, hardly what anyone could call a high-speed journey.

An investigation is under way at SCNF headquarters, to understand what went wrong and how it could have been dealt with differently, but in the meantime those passengers unlucky enough to be on board the nightmarish train have been offered a full refund and a free round-trip ticket for a future journey, should they dare to take it. It just goes to show that even when travelling within Europe, it pays to cover you and yours with some family travel insurance, because you never know what sort of travel disaster might be lurking around the next bend.