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The Ghost Train to Nantes

We kind of had a plan for the last day in Paris. Checkout was at noon and we had tickets for the 4:43 p.m. Paris-Nantes TGV, so we were free until 4 p.m.—the Montparnasse railway station was just two subway stops or a fifteen-minute walk from the hotel.

The timing was perfect. We could still enjoy a short afternoon in Paris and we would arrive in Nantes just before 7 p.m. which left us about an hour for grocery shopping before the end of the business day.

Ah ah, look at us, so smart and organized.

At noon, we handed out the room keys and stored the backpacks behind the front desk. Feng decided to take Mark to the Jardin des Plantes, my mom and I wanted to explore a few Rive droite neighbourhoods along the Seine River.

Once again, we crossed Saint-Germain-des-Prés, then strolled around the Latin Quarter, Notre-Dame, Île Saint-Louis, the 4th and 3rd arrondissements and the Hôtel de Ville.

“We’re first, losers!” I texted Feng from the hotel lobby at 3:50 p.m.

“Coming!” he replied.

Feng and Mark took the subway to Montparnasse, two stops from the Pernety station at the corner of the street. My mom and I walked. Fifteen minutes later, we were first again at the train station.

“TGV to Nantes leaves from platform 2, same one as last time,” I texted. “Hurry up!”

They showed up at 4:30 p.m.

“Where is the train?”

“The departure board says platform 2, let’s go!”

Another traveller right in front of us tried to scan his ticket to access platform 2.

“The gates are closed!” an SNCF employee shouted.

“But I’m taking the train to Nantes!”

“It doesn’t leave from platform 2 but from Hall 2!” the employee told him. “Across the station, upstairs… don’t bother, you’ll never catch the train, you’re late.”

Oh merde,” I said.

“Juliette… where is the train?”

“No idea! I took the train from Montparnasse a hundred times, I didn’t know there was another departure hall!”

The other passenger and the four of us ran across the busy main—and only, as far as I knew—departure hall, took the escalator to the upper level, ran some more and ended up in an empty, smaller hall.

“I don’t see any train!”

“Excuse me… which platform does the Paris-Nantes TGV leave from?”

“It’s too late. Boarding was completed thirty minutes ago.”

“What? But…”

“Next train is tomorrow.”

“Where IS the train?”

Other confused passengers were starting to show up—same questions, same answers. The train had just left or was leaving, tough luck.

Now, you may legitimately think “tough luck” as well if you’ve never taken the TGV before, but let me assure you that: 1) most passengers show up ten to fifteen minutes before scheduled departure 2) there’s no “boarding” process, you just hop on the train with your luggage 3) TGV trains leave from Hall 1 and neither my mom nor I had ever heard of Hall 2 and other passengers were as confused as us.

We found a bench and sat down for a few minutes, still sweaty and out of breath from running.

Feng and I reviewed our options. Staying another night in Paris wasn’t one of them—it was close to 5 p.m. and finding two affordable hotel rooms would be complicated. He checked the SNCF website on his phone. “There’s another train to Nantes at 5:43 p.m. Let’s see if we can exchange our tickets… or buy new ones.”

“How much?”

“€50 each, €25 for Mark.”

“So same price as the tickets we had.”

I was kind of relieved. With the new SNCF supply-and-demand system, last-minute tickets could have been much more expensive.

“We should talk to an SNCF employees,” I said. “I don’t understand why the train left from Hall 2, why it doesn’t say we have to board super early on the tickets and why the departure board said ’platform 2’—we both saw it, right? Doesn’t make sense to me.”

Back in Hall 1, we found an SNCF “summer staff” member, i.e. seasonal employees who help clueless travellers. We explained the issue.

“Let’s see if tickets can be exchanged or refunded… Enter the file number. Nope. Can’t find you.”

“But we had tickets,” I protested, showing the printed copies.

“Oh, I know. The system just… doesn’t work very well. You will have to complain to the sales office but you can expect to wait for… an hour or two.”

I glanced at the lineup in front of the “Boutique SNCF.” She probably wasn’t exaggerating.

“What are the options, then?”

She shrugged. “Buying new tickets.”

I sighed. “Alright.”

I just wanted to be on the next train to Nantes and time was running out.

“Which platform does it leave from?”

“Platform 2. TGVs to Nantes leave from platform 2.”

“Is it a joke? That’s where we showed up in the first place but we were sent to Hall 2!”

“That’s because the train you missed was a OUIGO.”

“A what?”

A “OUIGO.” A+ for perfect Franglish, F for transparency—I learned that “OUIGO” was the SNCF’s newish discounted TGV service and as such, it came with fine print. For instance, you have to board very early, trains leave from less practical locations you have to pay extra for luggage, etc.

Except we had no idea we were buying a lost-cost service—ticket price and travel time were the same as regular TGVs.

We boarded our non-OUIGO TGV at 5:35 p.m.

“We can still write to the company and try to get our money back,” my mom suggested.

I shrugged. “You know what, I don’t feel like wasting time on yet another Kafkaesque issue this summer. We had a good time in Paris, everything worked out fine. Sure, we had to pay twice for the return tickets. Then so be it. We’re travelling in first class, Wi-Fi is free so I’ll get some work done. We’ll get to Nantes ten minutes before bakeries close so hopefully we can grab some bread and I’ll rush to the supermarket. Could have been worse—no train, stuck in Paris for another night, expensive tickets…”

“It sounds like a scam,” Feng said. “Maybe it was a ghost train. After all, we never saw the train, just an empty departure hall in another building and employees telling us it was too late to board a TGV that was nowhere to be found. And look at this train, it’s packed! It leaves from platform 2, from the regular, main departure hall!”

I looked around and noticed several passengers who, like us, showed up too late for the OUIGO train an hour earlier.

“OUIGO… without you,” I replied. “That’s probably the complete slogan, an insider joke.”

Rue de Rennes, Paris
Rue de Rennes, Paris
Rue de Buci, Paris
Rue de Buci, Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris
Latin Quarter, Paris
Fontaine Saint-Michel, Place Saint-Michel, Paris
Fontaine Saint-Michel, Place Saint-Michel, Paris
Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris
Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris
The Drunken Boat, Arthur Rimbaud poem on a wall Rue Férou, Paris
The Drunken Boat, Arthur Rimbaud poem on a wall Rue Férou, Paris
In the TGV back to Nantes (the non-OUIGO TGV...)
In the TGV back to Nantes (the non-OUIGO TGV…)

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