Travel: Simon Calder's column

Ring Rail Europe and be prepared for the Housemartins' greatest hits
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The Independent Culture
JUDGING BY the response to the item last week on French Motorail, many of you are waiting to spend a lot of money on car-carrying trains this summer - but Rail Europe, the SNCF offshoot that sells the tickets in Britain, is doing everything possible to frustrate your efforts. The company blames problems with its computer system for its inability to accept bookings for the peak holiday month of August; perhaps it should also check its phone system.

The recorded announcement when you call Rail Europe (0990 848 848) insists that August reservations for Motorail will be available from Monday, 26 April. When you get through to a human being, you are told that bookings will not, in fact, open until 3 May. The helpful gentleman to whom I eventually spoke suggested that sending a fax to 0171-803 4850 might be easier.

Joanna Mimmack of Exeter writes to describe how she circumvented what can only loosely be described as a "system". "First, I tried phoning SNCF Paris to book from Lille, but encountered a similar refusal to accept bookings more than two months in advance."

Ms Mimmack then called German Railways in London (0171-317 0919): "We have now booked Motorail to Italy from Cologne in Germany, which is a lot cheaper (pounds 444 return). Calais to Cologne is straightforward on the motorway. Tickets are forwarded immediately by first-class post."

The rest of us, meanwhile, are grimly hanging on the line to Rail Europe, still listening to the Housemartins' greatest hits. Presumably it is someone's idea of a joke that every so often the music comes around again to the jolly tune "Happy Hour".

To vary things a little in between attempts to get some sense out of Rail Europe, I have been dialling Great Western telesales. On 0345 000 125 you never, ever get the Housemartins. Instead, on successive attempts you get (a) constant ringing followed by the unobtainable tone, (b) the engaged tone, and (c) someone who tells you that the train company isn't yet taking bookings for trains to Devon and Cornwall in August - despite the most significant astronomical event of a lifetime taking place there. If you want to book a trip in time for the total solar eclipse on 11 August, the best the reservations can suggest is that tickets will go on sale "hopefully within the next month".

Over at Virgin Trains, you can at last make bookings on trains to south Devon and Cornwall in August. At a price. The company says that it has taken steps "to control train loadings". And what is the best way to do that? To increase the lowest fare on sale by 150 per cent. Instead of the usual pounds 30.50 return from Birmingham to Penzance, for example, the lowest fare around the date of the eclipse is a Supersaver, price at a dazzling pounds 75.50.

TWO E-MAILS from the US this week, one silly, one sensible.

"We are so excited," begins a breathless missive from the reservations computer of a cut-price airline, "that you look to Southwest Airlines for low Internet fares. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, Southwest Airlines is not offering any click'n'save Internet specials this week."

Rather more exciting was a message from Raphael Soifer, who describes himself as "a prudish American reader".

"I feel compelled to point out a flaw in Anthony Rose's story last week, which referred to Long Island's "New England charm", which is fine, except for the fact that Long Island is not and never has been New England. We citizens of New England (which comprises Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine) are fiercely proud of our geographic uniqueness. Calling Long Island part of New England is like calling Lincoln the most charming part of Nottinghamshire."