Our three week rail journey through Europe began with a twenty-four hour trip from Inverness to Toulouse. It could not have presented a starker contrast between the antiquated rail system in Britain and the superb high-speed rail network of mainland Europe.
Our sleeper from Inverness to London was a cramped, clunky and slow old beast, one that in fact broke down in Edinburgh. This necessitated a 5am wake-up from a suspiciously quiet and deep sleep, and a bleary-eyed transfer to a regular east coast train. For sure the sleeper only cost £19 each thanks to bargain berths (since refunded due to the delay), but it’s still an old-fashioned service. Hopefully the forthcoming stock upgrade will lead to some more impressive and spacious compartments.
On the other hand, our Eurostar to Paris (or at least, the later service that Eurostar kindly bumped us on to after our delay in Edinburgh caused us to miss our intended departure) and two or three later TGV services in France were absolute pleasures to travel on.
It puts the UK to shame to note that the TGV – the network of high-speed trains in France – opened in the 1980s and was already hitting speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour during testing in the 1970s. This was about the time that the UK’s already poor rail network was in further decline thanks to underfunding and, later on, the disastrous privatisation.
With fast, smooth trains that simply glide along the tracks with barely a bump or a sway, the TGV is even better in its hugely spacious first class carriages, where fares bought long in advance are just a few euros higher than regular fares and well worth planning ahead for.
High-speed rail beats the plane hands down (as I recently blogged) and cannot, in my view, come soon enough to the rest of the UK. As I’ve written previously my worry is that it won’t go further north than Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Five and a half hours sounds like an endurance test for British rail travel. But on the lovely journey from Paris to Toulouse, the first big stop on our trip, the time flew by like the soothing blur of the French countryside we could see through the window.
Our seats were wide and comfortable. A little screen at the end of the carriage told us our speed – usually over 300 kilometres per hour. The noise of the train was minimal. It was almost as if we were flying. Only with the benefit of being able to take on board whatever food, water and other liquid we wanted, meaning we could kick back, sip some wine, and enjoy the ride.
It was a relaxing and stress-free way to start our trip, and just over twenty-four hours after leaving the Highlands of Scotland, we were in the southwest of France…