Follwing on from my last post (Train adventures #1: heading South), here’s a bit about my journey back. In contrast to the scenic route on the way down, this was a much quicker route. Since there’s less to discuss about the actual journey, I’ll talk a bit about the planning of this trip along the way.
I ended up booking this route just a couple of days before I travelled, as I changed my original travel plans. While I wouldn’t recommend booking your Interrail travels at such short notice, it certainly is possible and doesn’t generally increase the cost of your travel (in the way that short-notice planning does for air travel). Some of the reservations you make for high speed trains can also be refunded or changed.
There are essentially three main routes available from Italy (say, Milan or Turin) to the UK, in approximate order of journey length:
- (Milan/Turin) — Paris — London
- (Milan/Turin) — Zürich — Paris — London
- Turin — Ventimiglia — Nice — Paris — London
Unfortunately, when I booked this trip, the TGV train I needed on the most direct route (Turin — Paris) was fully booked. So I went for the Zürich route instead. (Though this route also goes through Switzerland, it won’t be nearly as scenic a route as the one I took outbound).
Genova Piazza Principe — Milano Centrale, 0819–1005, Trenitalia Intercity
Not much to say about this one — this was a pretty uneventful trip, much as the way down.
Milano Centrale — Zürich HB, 1110–1427, SBB EuroCity
This train took us through the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which is actually 6km longer than the Channel Tunnel. This tunnel has reduced travel times from Milan to Zurich drastically, and really makes Switzerland a viable option for North-South trips like this one. The tunnel is an amazing feat of engineering, though tunnels are never that interesting to travel through.
This was an interesting journey from a booking perspective. There were three of us travelling together, and when I was booking this trip, there was no reservation availability for from Milan to Zurich. Reservations are only required for the international part of the journey, though — from Milan to Chiasso. Once you get to Chiasso, you can then travel without a reservation. So I bought two reservations from Milan to Zurich and one full-price ticket from Milan to Chiasso (which was actually less than the cost of a reservation).
As this train was really busy, the three tickets ended up with separate seat reservations. A kind person on the train was very accommodating and swapped with one of our seats. This was great for the first part of the journey. When we passed through Chiasso, the person we swapped with was standing up, and someone who got on in Chiasso sat in that person’s seat. They wanted to see a seat reservation for that seat before getting up — but unfortunately our reservation only ran up to Chiasso! So that was a complicated way of losing our seat. It was a very busy train, with people sitting anywhere they could find a space, and some standing up. All part of the fun!
The train was delayed by about 15 minutes — and interestingly, due to this, we were sent off to the left at Arth-Goldau to run on the west side of the Zugersee, skipping our scheduled stop in Zug. Presumably this manages congestion and avoids knock-on effects on other trains. It was interesting to see this happen so seamlessly, and clearly SBB’s drivers are route-trained for this smooth re-routing. I can’t imagine that there are many cases in the UK where this could happen.
Zürich HB — Paris Gare de Lyon, 1534–1940, TGV Lyria
With a connection time in Zurich of over an hour, we had plenty of time in Zurich despite the delay. Zurich is a very easy place to change trains, especially if you’re arriving and leaving from the terminus platforms at ground level.
Continuing the theme of booking tricks, I’d booked ‘split tickets’ for this route. This technique isn’t nearly as useful in Europe than it is in the UK, but in this particular case, Interrail reservations Zurich — Mulhouse and Mulhouse — Paris are cheaper than a single reservation Zurich — Paris. The last time I did this, I was allocated the same seats for both parts of the journey, but that wasn’t the case this time.
For some reason, when we got to Basel, the train was joined to another train in front, and we were all told to get off and walk forward to the front of the train. If I’d been thinking properly, we’d have gone to our seats for the Mulhouse-Paris leg of the journey, but we instead joined our original seats. Sure enough, once we got to Mulhouse, another group arrived and we had to move again, though we found seats in the same carriage. Mildly inconvenient, but I’d still split my tickets again — the cost saving is worth it for sure.
We took a taxi from Paris Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord. Unfortunately we spent over an hour in the queue for taxis, and ended up missing our original train from Paris to Lille Flandres. I cancelled our original reservations and booked new ones through B-Europe when we got to Gare du Nord (incidentally, these were cheaper than the original ones!)
Paris Gare du Nord — Lille Europe, 2152–2307, SNCF TGV
This is another oddity of this booking. In my original plans for my return journey, I’d planned to make the journey in one day (not exactly on this routing, but similar enough). However, when I rearranged at short notice, there was no availability between Paris and London. So, I booked a train from Paris to Lille, an overnight stay in a hotel in Lille, and onwards travel the next day.
Lille is a useful alternative option to Paris — trains from Lille to the UK sometimes have better availability than their Paris counterparts. There are also some TGVs from Lille direct to destinations like Lyon and Nice, though they tend to be less frequent than those from Paris. In this case, it was pretty much the only viable option by train given the short notice and busy dates I was travelling on.
The final stretch
The next day was really very simple — I completed the journey with Eurostar from Lille to London, and then a train home. Nice to be back home after a great rail trip!