Slowly but surely, the Alps appeared

If you think of the Snow Train as being the slow lane to the Alps, you’re missing the point.  Its principal advertised advantage is a day and a half’s extra skiing, compared to flying.  But that’s not all it’s known for.  Mention the Snow Train to your friends and it might be suggested that you are looking to start your apres-ski before a ski has so much as been waxed or edged.  The reason for this is the infamous “disco carriage”.

But more of that later and a few of the basic facts first.  The Snow Train is simply a French train chartered jointly by British ski operators as an alternative to flying or self-drive to resorts in the French Alps.  There are also public versions of the train available from Calais, Lille, Paris or London for those who prefer to ski independently.

I started from Dover where I checked in for a late afternoon sailing to Calais.  I’d had to take Friday afternoon off work to get there in time but that was no hardship.  From Dover docks I was in the safe hands of the tour operator.

The rep joined us on a coach which drove us onto the ferry and off again in Calais, where a short drive to the station installed us on the train in good time for a mid-evening departure.  No rush meant no stress and no delays.  Calais station does not experience difficulties with take-off slots, so departure was bang on time.

Each passenger gets a couchette berth in a compartment of six and can enjoy a fair night’s sleep as the train plods across France at the pace of a Eurostar through Kent.  The slow progress at least means that you don’t roll off your berth as the train corners.  Equally importantly, you don’t have to disembark too early in the morning.

You don’t have to sleep if you don’t want to.  I made a beeline for the disco carriage only to find it disappointingly subdued.  Perhaps early season weeks are always like this.  I had looked forward to the sight of a heaving carriage trying to keep its dancing feet as the train cornered, but the dance floor was empty.

The carriage had instead taken on the air of a 1970s theme bar dispensing overpriced beer and pitiful sandwiches.  The barman, perhaps mindful of the carriage’s reputation, was trying to generate something resembling an atmosphere.  Coloured lights flashed and bland dance music pounded.  But to no avail.  I stayed for a few drinks too many and eventually called it a night and let the rattle of wheels on track lull me to sleep.

The real benefit of taking the Snow Train to the Alps can be felt at around five o’clock in the morning.  You might want to set your alarm because it’s well worth it to lie awake in your couchette, savouring the moments before your hangover kicks in, and thinking of the poor souls making their way to the airport for that unforgettable charter flight experience.  Then go back to sleep and wake a few hours later to the sight of crisp wintry scenes outside your window.

The train crawled up the valley, stopping at Chambery, Moutiers, Aime La Plagne and finally at Bourg St Maurice, where we pulled in alongside an incongruous Eurostar – a quicker and more convenient but, with no couchettes, a less comfortable option direct from Waterloo.

My destination was Tignes, a mere 30 minute transfer from Bourg St Maurice.  Some resorts are even closer to their local stations, others slightly further away.  I was on the slopes by lunchtime and by dinner I was raving about the skiing.  Those who’d arrived late in the afternoon were still trying to unwind after a four hour transfer from Lyon airport.

Better still, as those same people rose at four o’clock on the final morning to start their journeys home, we snow-trainers could roll over and go back to sleep, dreaming about the full day’s skiing still ahead of us.

Copyright Nicholas White 2000