Travel: Late sleeper, early start: Going skiing by train is enjoying a revival, reports Chris Gill, because you travel overnight and can sneak in an extra day on the slopes

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The Independent Travel
WHEN the British upper crust first took to spending long periods of the winter in the Alps, they naturally travelled by train. Show me a resort that has been in business since the Twenties and I will show you its railway station.

As most students of package-holiday brochures will now be aware, rail travel has, since the late Eighties, been undergoing a revival. Many tour operators offer holidays in the French Tarentaise resorts, from Valmorel across to Val d'Isere, with travel by what is usually called the Snowtrain.

The service runs from Calais to Bourg-St-Maurice, with stops at Moutiers and Aime. If your destination is Les Arcs, you can imitate the pre-war upper crust on its way to Wengen or Murren by stepping off the train at Bourg and on to a funicular railway to get up to the resort. For other destinations, a coach transfer - measured in minutes rather than the usual hours - completes the journey.

The Snowtrain is operated by French railways, but the carriages are chartered by tour operators. Doubtless you could persuade one to sell you a seat-only ticket, but the basic idea is that the Snowtrain forms part of a package. Its great attraction is that you get nearly eight days' skiing out of a seven-night holiday instead of the usual six or six and a half. You travel out on Friday night, and can ski most of the first Saturday (although a slower routing across France means that this year the train arrives later - about 11am). The return journey is made over the Saturday night, and you can therefore have a full last day on the slopes before the evening departure.

A year or two ago, the historical circle was closed by the introduction of a similar service to Austria, one of the original destinations of pioneer British skiers. This service calls at various points in the Tirol, starting with St Anton, where the train stops (at about 8am) in the heart of the resort, close to the ski lifts, thus ensuring a long first day. Arrivals at more easterly points are somewhat later, and are followed by a transfer; you'd be lucky to be on your skis in Kitzbuhel much before midday.

Whether you are able to take advantage of the peaceful Saturday slopes may depend on what use you have made of the bar-disco carriage that both services include. This apparently stays open as long as its clients stay awake; and since the lure of the second-class couchettes is not great - six drop-down bunks to one compartment - that is often all night.

But the Snowtrain also offers one or two other advantages. It may cost less than flying, and it imposes no baggage limitations.

Independent travellers - particularly those who are prepared to change trains - have a much wider range of possibilities. From Ostend, for example, there are sleeper services to Switzerland, giving access to the resorts of the Bernese Oberland (Wengen, Grindelwald) and the Valais (Zermatt, Crans). Once in Switzerland you can reach most resorts without leaving the rail network (the Swiss tourist office publishes a useful little map).

From Paris, there is a wide range of options: sleeper services to eastern Switzerland, for example, for resorts such as Davos and St Moritz.

Perhaps most compelling are the high-speed TGV services that run to various parts of the Alps: Evian for the Portes du Soleil, St Gervais near Chamonix, Moutiers and Bourg-St-Maurice for the Tarentaise, the Maurienne valley for Valloire and neighbours, Grenoble for Alpe d'Huez and neighbours, and Briancon for Serre-Chevalier and Montgenevre.

The TGV journey time to Moutiers, for example, is between four and four and a half hours. For those who like the idea of a holiday that embraces more than skiing, it's just the ticket to take in a museum and lunch in Paris before setting off for dinner in Courcheval.

(Photograph omitted)

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