Skiing: The rail alternative for skiers

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The Independent Travel
I have a dream. I want to get on a train at Waterloo station, go to sleep, and wake up as we pull into one of those quaint stations in the Savoie valley in the French Alps from which the ski slopes are barely an hour's bus ride. I wouldn't mind if I could also arrive at St Anton or Innsbruck by the same method.

Travelling by train has many advantages. The other main ways to travel - by plane, followed by a long coach ride, and by road - leave you exhausted. The plane/coach combination is the worst. We became infuriated with 4am starts and lengthy coach rides. And why do they make no effort to give you half a day's skiing on the first day? Instead there's a lengthy lunch stop at some soulless mall in the valley. So, for the past five years, we have gone by train to Savoie.

Many resorts are accessible by train. Most large French Alpine skiing areas are within an hour's coach ride from a station. In Austria, St Anton and Innsbruch can be reached overnight from Paris. The way to get to Austria is to take Eurostar in the evening to Paris, have a nice meal and get the Aarlberg Express from Paris Est which reaches St Anton station - right in the middle of the resort - just after 7.30am next day.

For France, there is still the old method of taking the ski train from Calais, after a ferry ride over the Channel. This is pretty gruesome. The ferry is prone to delays, and the trains seem to be trundled out of SNCF's museum for the sole purpose of transporting British skiers. The coaches have the irritating habit of being plunged in darkness just as you are tucking into your baguettes - there are no dining cars, only a spit-and-sawdust disco where holiday romances begin (and, on the way back, end).

So go, instead, by the Channel Tunnel which offers two ways of getting to Bourg St Maurice, Gervais and Briancon: daytime high-speed trains or overnight sleepers - both available from 17 December to 20 January for pounds 144 from French Railways. The daytime trains take nine hours or so to get to Bourg St Maurice with just a change in Lille. Stupidly, this involves a short coach journey between the two Lille stations: the French transport system is still not totally integrated. Or, for a few extra quid you can change in Paris, with a short metro ride through the city from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon.

This year, you can also take an overnight sleeper from Lille to the Alps, with the great advantage of two extra days' skiing (both Saturdays in the resort). Eight days skiing is so much better than six, which make you feel it's time to go home almost as you get there. The only extra cost is the ski pass for the two days and the price of a nice meal at one of the excellent restaurants that surround every station.

So far, though, SNCF does not seem to have got its act together to create these through links. At Easter last year, we wanted to take the train via Lille but were told that the special ski train would not run after the end of March. So 50 of us trailed our equipment through Paris at 9pm on Good Friday to get the overnight from Gare de Lyon, and I am going to have to repeat the experience this year even though we are going at Christmas because, amazingly, SNCF is not running a train that weekend.

As for my dream of direct trains, Eurostar say that they may try a few runs of daytime trains towards the end of the season; the journey would take around eight hours. But the night stock, to be used for overnight journeys on routes such as Glasgow to Paris, will be available for winter 1997/8. Tour operators are lining up to buy space. All sorts of possibilities are being considered, such as weekend overnight trips and daytime journeys, but Eurostar, like SNCF, does not seem to have realised the potential of ski trains. And technical problems mean it will probably not be until the 1998/9 season that the train comes into its own for most skiers.

Details: French Railways (0181-880 8162, or 0990 300 003).