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Travelling to Switzerland by train

Posted by at 03:40 on Monday 17 March 2008

Sally Broom (left), founder of responsible travel website Your Safe Planet, shares her experience of travelling to Switzerland overland...

I was invited to a business conference in the far eastern part of Switzerland, which was a great honour - except for the fact I have pledged to give up flying to anywhere in Europe that can easily be reached by train. After a 30-minute call, booked the tickets through Rail Europe. I am still under the age of 26, which in Europe means you qualify for youth tickets. So I was quite chuffed when the ticket price for the return journey came to only £50 more than the airfare - including transfers.


I set off on a busy Monday morning and arrived into St Pancras in time to have a wander round the shops and boutiques, many of which still have a 'new' smell about them. Checking in with Eurostar is simplified to putting your ticket into a barrier which lets you pass straight through, provided your train is within the next two hours. A short queue for the baggage x-ray and we are through the other side, awaiting the departure call with coffee and papers. It's not much of departure lounge so worthwhile waiting to check in until absolutely necessary, but there are comfy seats and an area reserved for business class.

Our train was called and we made our way to the relevant carriage, walking along the platform next to an unfathomably long train. The problem with all trains is that everyone clambers on with their own luggage, space for which is lacking. We were unfortunately following a school trip where each member had at least two suitcases. We waited patiently in the vestibule for people to shove bags into tiny spaces and take their seats. When we reached ours we found we had made a terrible mistake - we had looked at our return ticket portion for the seat numbers, not the outbound ticket. Given we were standing in carriage two and our seats were in carriage 17 of 17, we had the entire length of the train to walk, with bags, whilst moving. A Eurostar train is almost half a kilometre long so this was no mean feat. We arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris two hours later and we made our way to Gare de l'Est by foot, where most trains and TGVs leave to head eastwards. It's a very simple walk, thanks to advice from Seat 61.com. In front of Gare du Nord is Rue de Dunkerque. Turn left and walk to the end, then right and down some steep steps (take slowly with luggage) and into the side entrance of Gare de l'Est.

The station is lovely and relaxing, with shops not dissimilar to an airport and places to stock up on provisions for the journey. Our TGV ('very fast train' in French) to Zurich was called and we boarded, very nearly making another huge mistake. In France and indeed many European countries you MUST get your ticket punched at the automated machines by the entrance to the platform. If you don't you are in danger of a fine approaching 200 Euros on board, so worthwhile not forgetting. TGVs are blissfully quiet and smooth modes of transport with excellent buffet cars. After a vin rouge they rock you to sleep so you wake up hours later at your destination.

In Zurich we had a quick change onto a fabulous double-decker Swiss train that took us to St Gallen where a taxi had been arranged to take us to the hotel, which was a mere 10 minutes away. Having left London at 12.30pm we were tucked up in bed by midnight and ready to start the conference the next day. I should mention I was quite lucky to have even reached this stage, having forgotten that I would actually need a passport to travel, mainly as Switzerland has not ratified the Schengen agreement, requiring a mad dash home the day before. Annoyingly the only people to check identification were the border control guards at Eurostar, but it would have been typical that had I travelled without my passport someone in Zurich would have asked to see it. Better to be safe than sorry and ruin such a marvellous and stress free journey.

The return leg was just as enjoyable and we learned more about travelling by train through Europe. During winter in this part of the region many people make the most of the weekends by dashing for a day or two's skiing on nearby slopes. This means the trains are crammed with large groups of excited young people brandishing skis and poles, normally without a seat booked, hence forced to stand throughout the train. But it only added to the jolly atmosphere of the train and we struck up a few conversations in mixed languages with people strewn throughout the carriages. Back at Gare du Nord we had just one leg left, back to London.

After a very reasonably priced omelette over the road we stood and waited for our platform to be called but nothing came. It was eerily close to departure time when we realised you have to go up to the first floor to the Eurostar-only check in area, so unfortunately we spent our last few minutes in Paris rushing around and cursing. Despite a couple of near miss glitches this was by far one of the most relaxing journeys I have made. At around the same time and price to get door to door I fely I had certainly made the right choice. This became ever more apparent when we heard from fellow delegates about their nightmare return journey, plagued with airport security issues and flight delays. Not for us, we flew across the plains of Europe by TGV and even seemed to get much more work done than normal. Must have been the vin rouge...

For information on planning to travel by train from London to Switzerland, see: Plan Your Journey

See also: greentraveller previews new high-speed Eurostar service to St Pancras (21 September 2007)

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