In the beginning, British skiers went to resorts (mainly Swiss) that they could reach without leaving the rail network. Many resorts can still be reached in this way and most of them, still, are Swiss: Davos, Wengen, Arosa, St Moritz. But there are resorts in France and Austria, too, including the top names of Chamonix and St Anton, where the railway station and the cable- car station are only yards apart. But even if you are bound for a resort not served directly by train, the rail network will almost certainly get you closer to your destination than will the nearest international airport.
The independent rail traveller who likes the idea of journeying in great style and at great speed (largely at the expense of the French taxpayer) can now travel from Calais to the French Alps via Paris on the TGV (high-speed train). The daily service leaves at 12.40pm and takes just under two hours to Paris Nord. The 4.11pm from Paris Lyon will have you in Moutiers at 8.24pm, in time for supper in Courchevel. There are TGV services to St-Gervais, near Chamonix, but they are not so usefully timed.
Next winter, of course, Calais will no longer be isolated from Britain. Car-carrying shuttle services through the Channel tunnel begin in the spring, and passenger services from London to Continental destinations in the summer. Quite what skiers stand to gain from the tunnel next winter seems unclear: 'We are in a thick fog,' says a spokeswoman for French railways. The possibilities are clearly attractive however: daytime services that connect with the TGV (which, from the middle of next year, will be able to loop around Paris) and overnight, sleeper services from London to the Alps.
These latter services should preferably depart from London in the early evening; aperitifs should be served as the train shakes its way through Kent, in a civilised, non-disco bar carriage; a leisurely dinner should be served at elegantly laid tables as it glides through northern France; first-class compartments with showers and real beds should beckon; and breakfast should be served as dawn breaks over the Alps and the train winds up the Isere valley. (In the words of the song: If you haven't gotta dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?)
Back in the real world, things are rather more primitive. This winter, French railways are again running their Friday-night Snow Train for tour operator passengers from Calais to Moutiers (for the Trois Vallees) and on to Bourg-St-Maurice (for Les Arcs and Val d'Isere/Tignes). There is also a service to the Chamonix valley, terminating at St-Gervais.
These services offer only couchette accommodation - drop-down beds, six to a compartment. Groups of four or five (families especially) may want to seize the opportunity that some operators offer of booking a whole compartment at a small supplementary charge.
There is also a Friday-night car-carrying service from Calais to Moutiers and more frequent services from Paris to all the main French ski areas.
French railways' experiment last season with a car-carrying service to Austria was short-lived (the demand was not sufficient to make it viable), but the Snow Train to and through the Tirol carries on, and bookings on this service (unlike those to the French Alps), are open to independent travellers.
A key aspect of these overnight services is their timing. The theory is that you travel out over Friday night, back over Saturday night, and thus get eight days' skiing out of your seven nights' accommodation instead of the usual six. Last winter, because of difficulties in slotting the trains in with freight and other overnight services, the arrival time of the Moutiers/Bourg services became frustratingly late in the morning.
This winter, there are two trains, arriving at Moutiers at 7.08am and 8.52am, Bourg at 8.02am and 9.39am. If you're serious about getting your eight days' skiing, you'll want to be on the first one, but will find that the timings of these trains in tour operator brochures differ appreciably. Beware the small print that says 'timings will be confirmed with your tickets'.
The service to the Chamonix valley arrives boringly late: 10.10am. The main problem with the service to Austria is that it takes two-and-a-half hours to wind its way through the Tirol from St Anton (arrival 7.26am) via Innsbruck to Worgl, the station for Kitzbuhel and neighbours (arrival 10am).
Tour operators offering Snow Train (not necessarily to both Austria and France): Bladon Lines, Crystal, Inghams, Le Ski, Neilson, Owners Abroad (Enterprise, Falcon), Simply Ski, Ski Beat, Skiworld, Thomson, Touralp.
French railways (SNCF) are at 179 Piccadilly. Inquiries are handled on a premium-rate number: 0891 515477 (48p or 25p per minute); credit-card bookings: 071-495 4433.Reuse content