Travel: Je ne suis pas un jetsetter: Simon Calder goes right off the rails after an all-night journey to Paris

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The Independent Travel
WE ARE the underclass of travel. We stalk the corridors of the 8.40pm from Victoria, enduring what may be the final summer of the rail-sea link between London and Paris. What was once a premier route, offering through coaches for slumbering passengers, is now a complete shambles.

The 8.40 is not one of British Rail's crack expresses. It comprises four carriages of obsolete commuter rolling stock pressed into service for international non-jetsetters: schoolchildren, ex-hippies and those afraid of flying (it would take a pretty serious phobia to get me on this journey again). After a 10-minute delay leaving Victoria, and a mysterious pause outside Balham, we reached Newhaven and drew up a few yards from the ship.

The driver's efforts in trying to make up time were wasted, since the ship's crew seemed thoroughly surprised to see us. The reception was the sort of baffled irritation you might get if you turned up for a dinner party on the wrong day. We all followed the signs to the ship, but after 10 minutes of crowding around a locked door we were directed to what they called a lounge. It was the size of a modest Happy Eater, but without the comfort and style.

At a rough guess the 'lounge' was about one-fiftieth the size of the ship, but it was required to hold the same number of people - around 500. A plaque records that the terminal was opened by the French Minister of Tourism 20 years ago. Perhaps he derived some sadistic pleasure from the task, because even then it must have been woefully inadequate.

Suddenly people rushed forward. A man was taking tickets; but he was alone, and was relishing his duty of inspecting each one meticulously. About an hour after the scheduled departure, the last passenger trickled on board.

Stena Sealink calls itself the World's Leading Ferry Company, but the Stena Londoner was little better than a sea-going slum - and an icy one at that. The crew could offer only sympathy. 'It's the new air- conditioning system,' the purser explained. It was ruthlessly effective at keeping the temperature down, ideal for sultry summer afternoons but not for April nights. There were no cabins so I shivered in the Green Line Lounge.

The ship steamed into Dieppe exactly an hour late. By now I was so cold I could not even reach into my pocket to find my passport. I fixed the immigration official with a glare and hurried past to the train. At least the French know how to run a railway. What a train it was: it had three times as many carriages as the one from London, and I found a whole, toasty compartment to myself. Assuming hordes of commuters did not board at the only stop - Rouen - I could slip off to sleep and awake in Paris just after seven.

We stopped at Rouen. No one got on. But it was worse than that. The spirit of sharing operational techniques is clearly thriving between BR and French Railways. Unfortunately the wrong ideas seem to be going in the wrong direction. In a gesture straight out of BR's customer care handbook, the guard announced - in French only - that his train was going no farther. We were invited to wait in the cold for a train 20 minutes later. It was an all-stations-to-Paris double- decker, bulging with a boatload of travellers rucksack-to-briefcase with grumpy commuters.

On the return journey, the French train at least managed to go the distance from Paris to Dieppe. We stood for the obligatory half-hour in a draughty shelter before being allowed on board. I set up camp in the bar. Seconds later, a contingent of trainee hoodlums burst in to take the territory and began to cleanse the area of people such as me. We all retreated to squat on the lager-stained carpet outside the duty-free shop.

Some residue of joy was found on the train back to London. The guard made a brave attempt at a bilingual warm-up, but caused huge mirth recommending passengers for Brighton to change at 'Aywards 'Eat.

There seemed to be a conspiracy to chill out the underclass, since the heating in the compartment was not working. I was just wondering how long one could survive before exposure set in, when the unthinkable happened. Shortly after leaving 'Aywards 'Eat, the Francophone guard invited us to move into first class, where the heaters were happily churning out warmth. From the underclass to first class; being upgraded by British Rail nearly made up for the whole dismal experience. But please hurry up and finish the tunnel.

The rail-sea journey from London to Paris costs pounds 36.20 for a night single, pounds 62.30 for a five-day return; details from British Rail International (071- 834 2345).

Eurolines (071-730 8235) runs overnight buses from Victoria to Paris, costing pounds 49 return.