Monday 1 July 2024

Tour of the French and Swiss Alps by Train, part 2

The Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix

Monday morning dawned dull and damp but with the promise of some sunshine later. It was to be one of the more exciting days of the Great Rail Journeys itinerary for this holiday, the train into France to Chamonix Mont Blanc, our first mountain railway of the tour. Because of our base being in Lausanne rather than Montreux we had a slightly longer trip to get to Martigny where our train ride into the Alps was to begin. It was drizzling at Martigny as we left the main line train which had taken us there and walked to the platform where our narrow-gauge mountain railway train would depart. These were short trains and part of a coach had been reserved for our party. We were shown by a railway official where to board to ensure that we were in the right place for our seats.

The Mont Blanc Express is not what you think of as an express train! It is not even just one train, for it is necessary change trains part-way through the journey. The scenery is amazing, though, and the train starts to climb a few moments after leaving the station. 

Now we have travelled on many an international train, high-speed inter-city expresses like the Eurostar and the TGV Lyria on which we arrived in Geneva, the little branch-line train from Besançon into Le Locle and, for example, the Centovalli line between Switzerland and Italy, but the Mont Blanc Express is the only one we've used where a change of train is needed at the border: at the first station in France we left our train and crossed the platform to join an apparently identical one which took us the rest of the way to Chamonix. Another interesting feature about this route was that at a station part of the way between the border and Chamonix  the overhead electrical line ended and the train's pantograph was lowered, with electrical pick-up being from a third rail conductor. It is just like the procedure at Farringdon in London where Thameslink trains transfer from the overhead to third rail and vice-versa, but you do have to wonder why it is done here for just a few short kilometres of third-rail running, especially where deep snow is regularly expected!

We had a few hours to explore Chamonix and began with a trip to the tourist information office for a map. The drizzle had stopped by now but the day remained cloudy with occasional sunshine, but a trip up to the mountain tops would have been disappointing with all the cloud cover, so we opted to stay in the town, beginning with coffee! We had an interesting stroll around the town, France but not very different from Switzerland; indeed you would never know from the domestic architecture where the border is when you cross it on the Mont Blanc Express. Although we opted not to travel any higher in view of the cloud cover, we did go and look at a cable car station and saw that it had a healthy queue of potential passengers, so there were plenty of people who did decide to go up higher. We returned for lunch to the café we had visited earlier and enjoyed the advertised croques monsieur.  There was sunshine at times and the clouds shifted, revealing glimpses of the mountains that we knew were surrounding us. Chamonix was the venue for the first Winter Olympic games and athletes from the town formed the French team. There was a fascinating display of advertising posters for the Winter Olympics from the first time until the present.

We made our way back to the railway station to join the rest of the party and take the train back down to Martigny, changing trains just before the border, where we almost had an unplanned adventure: everyone piled off the train from Chamonix and crossed the platform to a waiting train, but no, apparently this was not our train but the next one back to Chamonix; why they had such a complex operation for a simple branch line I cannot begin to imagine. "It is France," was the best any of us could come up with ... And so, a few moments later the real train to Martigny arrived, we boarded and were taken back down the steep hillsides to take the connection back to Lausanne where dinner was at the hotel again. After dinner we prepared our luggage as far as we could for the following morning because we were to leave for the Golden Pass Express, and as we were in Lausanne and not Montreux we would have to leave rather earlier than originally planned in order to get our connecting train. 

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