Travel: Strife on a snow-bound train: Chris Gill emerges from a heavy fall of readers' letters still believing in the virtues of rail travel to the slopes

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The Independent Travel
My recent observations on train services to the Alps have clearly touched a nerve, triggering a veritable avalanche of letters from readers. Well, a number, anyway. For those who missed that particular column, the Snowtrain, operated by French railways SNCF with carriages chartered by tour operators, runs from Calais to the Tarentais region in France and to the Austrian Tyrol. By travelling out on Friday night and returning the following Saturday night, travellers can get eight days' skiing out of a seven-night holiday, rather than the usual six or six and a half.

Four letters come from people who see the overnight trains from Calais as a good thing on the whole, but who have reservations about the practicalities - particularly about the chartered Snowtrain sold by UK tour operators.

There is general agreement that the arrangements for handling Snowtrain passengers at Dover and Calais are poor. Delays at Dover result from long queues to check in at the 'quite inadequate' departure concourse, and from the system of transfer buses to the ship, which 'cannot cope with the hundreds of Snowtrain passengers'. Seats on the popular Friday afternoon sailing are in short supply, and those who board late are unlikely to find one.

At Calais, chaos is said to reign. Trains (of which there are several waiting to depart) are poorly identified, and SNCF and tour-operator staff have been found to be inadequate in number and unclear about which train is going where.

These criticisms bear out Patsy Goulding's complaints, reported here a month ago. But my more recent correspondents seem to regard the hassles as a tolerable price to pay for a longer skiing holiday. Generally, they don't go along with Ms Goulding's objections to the train journey itself.

The lack of a buffet car? All the main brochures spell this out, say the supporters, who despite the cramped conditions clearly enjoy the picnic suppers they have taken care to organise. Uncontrollable temperatures? Open the window.

Space for baggage is a grey area. SNCF says the Snowtrain tour operators generally keep one compartment per carriage as a baggage depository. The same arrangement is meant to apply on the separate scheduled service to France. Not all our reporters seem to have found these arrangements work in practice.

What does seem clear is that - as Ms Goulding pointed out - luggage has to be carried at some points, so it is well worth keeping the quantity down. In theory, this is more of a concern for independent travellers than tour-operator clients, whose baggage is supposed to be delivered to the train by baggage handlers.

Perhaps the key question Ms Goulding raised was over the practicality of skiing eight full days rather than the customary six - the 'simple and overwhelming advantage of going by train', to quote an enthusiast. Where do you leave your possessions and change clothes on days 1 and 8?

Our reporters suggest that if you're travelling with a tour operator, it should be able to take care of the bags, and that even self-catering reception offices usually have a place for left luggage. They suggest - and my own experience confirms - that hotels and chalets can usually provide somewhere for arriving and departing guests to change, even if bribery has to be employed. And they point out that it is possible - even if not convenient or pleasant - to change on the train.

In the end, we seem to come down to horses for courses. Andrew Darwin strongly recommends the train to groups of friends, speaking enthusiastically of 'the tremendous fun to be had on a longish train journey in genial company' - and perhaps the acid test is to ask yourself whether that notion strikes a chord. Deirdre Philpott recommends the train unreservedly for everyone except 'those travelling with children to self-catering accommodation'.

S D Craft asks a pertinent question: Why do the tour operators not offer a choice of accommodation at different prices, from reclining seats through to comfortable sleepers, rather than just six-berth orfour-berth couchettes?

And why not a restaurant car? The answer, I think, is lack of suitable carriages - but if that hurdle could be overcome, an upmarket version of the Snowtrain would surely be an attractive option to many veterans of the Gatwick-Geneva ordeal.

When trains are running speedily through the Channel tunnel, this vision of pleasurable, civilised transport to the Alps will become even more tantalising and I, for one, hope to see it realised. Until then, the chartered Snowtrain and its parallel scheduled services seem to offer a blend of pros and cons that is different from the air-travel blend, but not necessarily superior.

It is worth noting that Motorail services to Austria and France, although sharing the same trains and attendant imperfections, are less hassle-ridden. You cross the Channel as a normal car-borne group, your bags stay in the vehicle throughout the journey and can also stay in it on days 1 and 8.

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