The Joys of Train Travel Planning in France

Posted on 3 June 2007 in Internet, Transport (11 comments)

If there's a greater test of website usability, it's trying to find out information from a site that's in a language you don't speak.

I came across this issue this morning when trying to check some things related to our holiday. We're going hiking in France, and have opted to get the train down there rather than fly - a greener solution, although if I'd done my research properly and realised it would include a four hour journey on regional trains in the south of France, I might have opted to fly.

The reason I was checking was that the preliminary itinerary was recently sent by the holiday company and there was something contradictory about the information they'd given - we had to get a coach for part of the journey, but it wasn't entirely clear where from, so I decided to take a look online and see what I could find out.

The route incidentally is Waterloo to Lille Europe, then change onto the TGV for Marseille. Then from Marseille we head on the regional train to (according to our itinerary) Guillestre-Montdauphin.

As it happens, the French railway company SNCF have a website aimed at UK websites, called sncf.co.uk funnily enough. On the left of the site is the statutory box for booking tickets. In hope, I tried to use it as a timetable. Unfortunately the whole thing uses pulldown menus - you can't just type in your station. In hope I tried the "Any Station" option and submitted. Which was then it spent some time trying to find my train...

After a nice pause, it helpfully told me that "No trains run after the time indicated"... But did take me to a new webform where I could actually enter the details of the station I wanted to go to.

Which hit upon problem 2 - "There is no service to the town of departure and/or arrival." It appears that the travel agents have told us the wrong station name. It's not Guillestre-Montdauphin, but actually Mondauphin Guillestre which I was duly prompted to enter.

Unfortunately the results I got back were then completely different to what I'd been given my the travel agent. Instead of a morning departure, it gave me a nice journey departing mid-afternoon, and putting us on a sleeper train (in a way, this wouldn't have been a bad idea given the length of the journey...) No other options were presented - no chance to find out anything earlier.

Hmm I thought. Okay, lets try just going from Lille Europe, where we get off the Eurostar. Nope, same problem.

Righto I thought. This ain't working. Lets try another option... Let's go to SNCF's main webpage and see what can be found - like timetables for instance.

Now it has to be said that my French isn't very good. I actually did German for my GCSEs, and stopped doing French in my third year at high school. However it seemed likely that the website for the French state train company, might just have a pretty obvious journey planner on the front page of its website.

SNCF website on 3 June 2007

Amazingly it doesn't. There's plenty of links extolling the virtues of the TGV (even without the aid for Google Translate I can tell that!) but nothing blindingly obvious for getting train information.

Now call me funny, but you'd think most casual visitors to the SNCF website would be interested in train information. It seems pretty popular in the UK - almost every railway company website in Britain has a pretty obvious set of boxes for checking train times if nothing else. Transport for London recently redesigned its entire website to put passenger information at the heart of it. And when you go to National Rail's website, there it is. Even Network Rail - an infrastructure company after all - put a prominent link on their front page.

Stuff the UK, let's look abroad. Die Bahn in Germany, Renfe in Spain, NS in the Netherlands, Ferrovie dello Stato in Italy... Need I go on?

Yet SNCF seems to think it's not that important. Instead you have to click on the slightly cryptic "voyages-sncf.com" website, which isn't entirely obvious (and which Google Translate cunningly describes as "The agency of voyage online".

Unfortunately www.voyages-sncf.com suffers from the same cunningness as sncf.co.uk in that it completely fails to find the train I wanted... However it does at least have a French translation (it's notable that I didn't manage to find a UK train company which provides any services in a language over than English - with the notable exception of Arriva Trains Wales, who of course provide Welsh).

Back to the drawing board then - timetables. National Rail has pretty easy access to the entire national rail time table for the UK for instance. There must be a copy for France surely?

Well if it's linked from the SNCF website, I couldn't find it. Instead, with the help of another website, I found I had to drill down in the regional - TER - section of the website.

At this point you're presented with a map - you have to select your region, either by map or by pulldown menu. Of course I'm an ignorant tourist who doesn't know quite which region he's going to (cue much scrabbling and hunting for maps). Turns out I want Provence Alpes Côe d'Azur, where I'm finally presented with a box so I can enter my departure point and my destination.

TER SNCF website on 3 June 2007

Cunningly it finds the train - which it claims leaves five minutes before our itinerary says, and has no arrival time. And no apparent way to find an arrival time. Although I can select some options whereby I can tell it I don't mind cycling for 20km before getting in my car for another 10 minutes, or something equally mindless.

In complete desperation, I find an interactive map for the region, where I stumble around and finally find the timetable for the line I want. Which finally tells me the information I want to know - the journey is part bus from Marseille to Meyrargues. This arrives at 1755 and there we board the train for the rest of the journey.

Half an hour of pain and suffering and I finally have the information I need. The itinerary by the way, is wrong because it says we arrive at Meyrangues five minutes seven minutes before we even leave Marseille, and departs from there an hour later. Goodness knows what they were doing there. And the problems with the SNCF online journey planner? Digging around online, it apparently can't cope with a journey where you need to change twice. As our journey requires three changes, we didn't stand a chance...

Almost makes you think SNCF don't want people travelling on their trains...

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Your Comments

Ken said:

I have just spent the last 20 minutes trying to find out how much it will cost for me to travel from Cherbourg to Paris. No luck. We may moan about british rail but at least it is easy to find information.

Posted on 27 January 2008 at 8:56 PM

Roger Lowry said:

further problem - when eventually you Do get the info, you try to book; then you find the site only works 90 days ahead - so you can't actually book your summer holiday!

Posted on 27 January 2008 at 10:19 PM

Kay said:

Thanks for this very helpful post. I have been struggling with the SNCF website too and this info will save me loads of time.

Posted on 4 March 2008 at 5:09 PM

Laurie said:

The SNCF web site was clearly designed by a media-studies student (maybe even a graduate) who had never been taught first principles. It is quite THE WORST WEB SITE I HAVE SEEN FOR YEARS. User-hostile only begins to describe it. I don't know to who to complain about but if anyone finds a suitable Customer Service link please tell us all!

Posted on 7 August 2008 at 9:27 AM

Frances Dalton said:

I have spent the last two hours trying to locate a train route which would connect from Carcasonne to Perigueux without any success The SNCF website is anything but user friendly.

Posted on 15 August 2008 at 2:15 PM

Kazza said:

I am glad someone else out there is frustrated to death by the SNCF website! I've got passable French, and I'm living here for the next six months, and I can't bear to use it. I've taken to going to buy my tickets from ticket windows, after using the Deutsch Bahn website for line information. The TER website is really good - if you're travelling within a region, not through or outside it. In the end, I'm finding I'm taking Eurolines buses - they're easier to book, you can print out the tickets, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for TGV or even regional trains (its even cheaper, most of the time, to take a bus outside France, then take it back in to your destination, than to go there by regional train. Takes longer, yes, but half the price.)

I've heard that the expense is due to the French government's monopolising grip on public transport in France. They need some serious competition.

Posted on 17 October 2008 at 5:47 PM

Carlbob said:

Spent some time last month struggling to use the RENFE (Spanish railway) website, either in Spanish or English, to give me times for a simple journey (from Barcelona down to Port Aventura).

Complete nightmare, with different information depending on which form I filled in. At one point it looked like there was nothing going there at all, and I was busy planning a journey to Taragonna via a high-speed train, with a view to getting a taxi. It was only because the website refused to accept my credit card that we didn't end up with a reservation on this service (naturally the credit card refusal was a very helpful "Error number -123" or somesuch).

In the end, we took our chance at the station, at which point we were given a very handy timetable leaflet showing the various trains, nearly one an hour in fact...

Made National Rail and its idiosyncracies seem like the slickest information service ever - although I do wonder if tourists and visitors to the UK are equally as baffled as we are by SNCF/RENFE et al.

Posted on 5 January 2009 at 10:11 AM

Andrew Bowden said:

I've often wondered how people react to our myriad of train operating companies and ticketing systems - but at least there's always combined ticket offices and the companies can work as one in a roundabout kind of way. There's unified ticket and timetabling databases, and the information you get on one site is usually mirrored on others.

That said, the National Rail website really isn't as good as it could be.

Posted on 5 January 2009 at 10:34 AM

Philip Murphy said:

Don't worry, it has nothing to do with your French: the SNCF website is quite simply dreadful. It assumes you already know the information you are looking for - completely back to front. People in France have been complaining about it too, but no improvements yet.

Posted on 21 January 2009 at 3:20 PM

Peter said:

The Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.de) website has times for every train in Europe. Won't give you prices on the internet for trains other than German ones, but gives you the times and connections. And it's available in loads of languages too - English, French, Italian etc, in addition to German.

Posted on 17 July 2010 at 9:24 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

Indeed - one of my favouties. I wrote about it in Die Bahn, Das Gut. They now have a UK site (complete with some dodgy translations here and there) at www.bahn.co.uk

Posted on 30 July 2010 at 5:35 PM

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