I found myself in the North of France on a Friday afternoon, needing to be in Southern France to start a week-long classic car rally on Saturday morning. A quick check of my Michelin maps indicated this was a trip of more than 500 miles, and I was driving a very slow 600cc automobile with a top speed of less than 60 mph. The solution was taking the train.
During the summer months, from May through September, Rail Europe operates a service called French Motorail from Calais in northern France to several cities in the southern part of the country. Most of these trains leave in the late afternoon and travel overnight to their destination. Private sleeper cars are provided for those who book the service for their automobiles and motorcycles so that, according to Motorail website, "You, and your car, will arrive fresh and ready to make the most of your holiday."
Booking passage on the French Motorail can be done at the Calais station, but is better accomplished online or over the phone. I had booked tickets some weeks earlier from the U.S. using the website without difficulty. The trip from Calais to Toulouse was not cheap, especially with the weakness of the U.S. dollar against European currencies. A hefty $500 went against my credit card, making the travel cost right around a dollar a mile.
Upon arrival at the special Motorail train station in Calais, there's some minor paperwork to be filled out before cars are inspected and a vehicle condition form is completed by an attendant. Because many of the passengers on the Calais service are British, many of the workers are college students from the U.K., so knowing how to speak French isn't necessary. There are plenty of warnings that, aside from a bar car that offers drinks, coffee, beer and snacks, there is no food offered on the train and that passengers are expected to bring their own food for the 12-hour journey. Modern cars are left with attendants, who drive them onto specially-built railcars. Classic cars and motorcycles are driven onto the railcars by their owners. Although Motorail accepts most automobiles, it's best to check with them before assuming that they will accept that yours is an unusual classic.
The sleeper car has separate rooms and each has two bench seats that reconfigure into four berths. There are bathrooms at the end of each car. With the car safely onboard, I settled down in my compartment, anticipating a quiet and restful night that would by morning see me 500 miles away in Toulouse.
The French rail system has a reputation for exceptional service. Its state-of-the-art TGV trains travel at over 200 mph and welded rails ensure a quiet comfortable ride. The Motorail cars, however, are not state-of-the-art. They are extremely noisy and provide an extremely rough ride-a bit like tumbling inside a spinning clothes dryer. Light sleepers like myself won't sleep at all; even heavy sleepers reported a sleepless night. The noise is almost deafening, making conversation difficult, and the constant swaying and abrupt rocking of the cars make walking nearly impossible. This goes on for 12 straight hours, broken up only by a couple of stops along the way to discharge passengers and their automobiles.
There are some plus sides to the service. When morning comes you can open the blinds and watch the beautiful French countryside streaming past. Trains travel through people's back yards and it's interesting to see crumbling ruins of farmhouses, barns filled with livestock, and old cars, trucks and farm implements that have been put out to pasture as you rush by. It is small compensation for the restless night, but beautiful nonetheless.
Bleary-eyed, I arrived in Toulouse and to a complimentary breakfast provided by the rail service. This breakfast gives the rail workers time to shuttle the vehicle-carrying rail cars to the unloading area and begin the unloading process. This can take up to three hours-in our case, because the train wasn't crowded, it only took about an hour and a half.
Despite my negative experience on the French system, I do like the idea of my car traveling by rail. The sheer size of the United States and the vast distances we must cover would seem to make the idea of cars on trains a no-brainer. In the U.S., Amtrak offers a vehicle rail service that travels between Washington D.C. and Orlando, Florida, a distance of almost 900 miles. I've never taken this service, but the routing would seem to be ideal for those heading south for a Florida vacation. A quick check of the Amtrak website shows this trip to be a bargain too, running about $200 for a one-way ticket. Amtrak claims the trip takes about seventeen and a half hours, about five moresthan driving it non-stop.
Would I travel by French Motorail again? Not if I could avoid it. In this case my travel plans were simply too tight to provide for driving from Calais to Toulouse and I thought that I would get a good night's sleep before the start of the event in the South of France. On reflection, the uncomfortable ride mooted the idea that I would get any rest. The other alternative, driving the whole distance, seemed like a better option at 3 a.m. when the train was hammering over rough tracks and I couldn't sleep.
My experience with the French Motorail brings up a bigger issue. As fuel prices continue to rise and the consequences of long-distance travel in personal vehicles become more significant, the idea that you could put your car or motorcycle onto a train, spend the night comfortably sleeping, and arrive hundreds of miles away is an appealing one. Clearly, the French system doesn't deliver on that promise, but I am not willing to give up entirely on the concept. I've ridden a lot of trains in a lot of different parts of the world, including through much of France, and I am convinced that the Motorail experience is not typical. Perhaps it's the age of the railcars or the types of tracks that the Motorail uses that makes the ride so noisy and uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine that the U.S. track system, which is designed and used primarily to haul heavy freight, would be much better.
If we wish to have a future that allows us to enjoy our personal mobility, still take long trips, and promote better fuel efficiency and transportation responsibility, maybe it's time for someone to look at the real possibilities of travel by rail. Make it quiet, comfortable, easy and affordable and I'll be one of the first to sign up for my next driving vacation.