“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” ~John Lennon
So after all of Tracy’s meticulous travel planning in anticipation of son Casey and his fiancée Megan’s arrival in France; after our pre-purchase of train, flight, and venue tickets; and after our pre-paying for hotel reservation, we were surprised with a sudden rail strike which turned out to be the longest since 2010. While “industrial actions” are always a possibility in France, this one took us totally unprepared.
Casey and Megan arrived in Paris in early June and while exploring the “City of Lights” together, Tracy and I checked the English-language online news (The Local and France 24) and learned that two of SNCF’s (the French national rail service) four unions, CGT and Sud-Rail had started what will eventually turn out to be a 10 day strike. Most strikes in France in recent years are 24 hour “rolling strikes” with prior public notice that cause a minimum of inconvenience. But this rail strike was called on short notice because of major rail system reform legislation scheduled in the French Parliament that week and the strike would uncharacteristically drag on day after day after day.
So when the time came for the next leg of our trip, traveling from Paris to Marseille, we took the RER commuter train from Paris to the Gare de Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy train station to catch our previously assigned seats on the Ouigo high-speed train to Marseille. (The Ouigo in SNCF’s alternative to discount airlines with re-liveried TGV trains with cost-saving online booking and the absence of a cafe car but with very comfortable deluxe seats with fares starting at €10.) Unfortunately, once we arrived at the train station we learned our train (along with two others of the day’s previous trains which were also headed south) had been canceled. But, we were told by the SNCF staff that there was one southbound TGV train still scheduled in two hours. The SNCF official told us that if we managed to “get on that train and the doors are able to close” we could ride that TGV as an alternative to our canceled train. Space on the train was “first come, first serve,” for passengers without assigned seating like us.
So we embraced the “lifeboat rules” of traveling during a major train strike in France. We played cards and waited for the alternative train, keeping a close eye the electronic status board, and hoping that train didn’t get cancelled at the last-minute. Casey and Megan became “Platinum level” participants in the “French National Sport” of surviving strikes. Both maintained absolute positive attitudes and great humor while waiting for our alternative train. We talked and played cards to wile away the hours as we waited. When the train arrived, we were waiting at the front of the queue with the regular passengers and a good portion of extra passengers from the three cancelled trains. As we searched for space, the four of us ended up with many others passengers in a first class car standing in the entryway like commuters in a crowded subway car during rush hour.
The train’s doors managed to close, it started rolling southbound, and we all sighed with relief that we made the train. Now it was time to get comfortable (or as comfortable as possible) for the 3 hour + trip to Marseille. Casey and Megan were kind enough to give me a spot on some steps entering a first class cabin (my old leg injury makes being stationary while standing painful.) They both found a seat on the floor of the entryway way. Tracy stood in the first class cabin doorway for the first two hours of the trip (and diverting air conditioning into the entryway.) During the trip our fellow surplus passengers also found seats sitting on their bags, the floor, and one person sitting in the car’s restroom commode. We were envious of our ticketed first-class companions in their assigned seats, but the overall mood of all the passengers was friendly and helpful. Casey used his high school and college French to speak with a French father with his wife and two sons. Tracy helped support an older woman standing next to her in the cabin doorway.
About two hours into the trip at the stop at Avignon, the first-class cabin that Tracy was standing near had four seats open up as those passengers disembarked. The four of us luxuriated in the first-class seats for the remainder of the trip to Marseille. We had a pleasant conversation with the other foursome in the cabin, a group of slightly older Parisians on their way to their condo on Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera). One of the Parisians was a French engineer who spoke excellent English. He and Casey, a newly graduated engineer, discussed their shared profession.
When we arrived in the Gare Saint-Charles (Marseille) train station and we congratulated ourselves on remaining calm and successfully working around the rail strike on that leg of the trip.
While the rail strike dragged on, day after day, we toured Marseille and then got ready for our next leg to Rome. We made use of the shuttle bus – rather than the train – out to Aéroport de Marseille Provence (Marseille Provence Airport) and later used the same bus upon our return to Marseille from Rome.
After our return from Rome, our next leg was scheduled to be Marseille to Carcassonne by the Bordeaux-Nice Intercités train in assigned seating. Although the train strike was still on, this train was one of the 60% of routes still running. SNCF had hired additional station workers during the strike to help confused and stranded passengers in the train stations. All of our questions about our train were answered quickly: our train was still running and would run straight to Carcassonne with no changes or delays.
We were expecting another over-crowded train like what we previously experienced from Gare de Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy to Marseille, but we were pleasantly surprised to have a cabin to ourselves with no overcrowding at all. We assumed that this late into the strike, local commuters were choosing to postpone or finding alternative transportation for their travel. We enjoyed the scenery of the southern French from Gare Saint-Charles (Marseille) through Nimes, Montpellier, Sète, Béziers, Narbonne, and finally home to Carcassonne. While Casey and Megan were staying with us in Carcassonne, the rail strike finally ended after ten days. We were thrilled that we had “dodged the bullet” with the train strike because Casey and Megan had to eventually return to Paris by train. The ten-day rail strike was the longest since 2010.
As the end of Casey and Megan’s visit in Carcassonne approached, we learned that we took the “all clear” on transportation strikes for granted too soon. Two French air traffic controller unions had voted for a six-day strike with the threat of impacting air passengers with 14,000 hours of delays, hundreds of cancelled flights, and a reduction overall of 20% of the air traffic through France. The air strike was scheduled to begin the day before Casey and Megan’s departure back to the US.
Tracy and I monitored Casey and Megan’s return flight to the US on British Airways. It looked promising with their flight appearing to be one of the non-impacted ones. But the British Airways website had the caveat that we needed to confirm the flight 24 hours prior to departure because the strike situation was volatile and flights were subject to change. Luckily, the first air traffic controller union almost immediately settled their strike and the second air traffic controller union called off their strike the Wednesday prior to Casey and Megan’s departure on Thursday.
So in the end, Casey and Megan caught the Intercités train with assigned seating to Montpellier where they took the Ouigo TGV train to the Gare de Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy just outside Disneyland-Paris. Casey and Megan spent a day at Disneyland-Paris before flying home to Reno, Nevada the next day from Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle (Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.)
Both Casey and Megan left France with metaphorical Gold Medals that we all earned in beating the French transportation strikes of June 2014.