The official name for an irrational fear of trains is Siderodromophobia. Not very catchy and a bit long. Here is my suggestion – Renfobia, an irrational fear and dislike of trains (especially those operated by Renfe, the Spanish train operator). In the last month I have become Renphobic. The cause of this? A recent trip to Valencia. The purpose of the trip was to accompany my sister Kim and my brother-in-law Chris who had tickets to watch the motorcycle Grand Prix.
At the time of booking the train journey 80 € for a return ticket sounded like good value for money. Valencia is 652 km from my house which (according to Google maps) is a 10 hour drive. So after factoring in the diesel costs the train looked like a good bet. So I booked the tickets on-line using www.renfe.es and on the day of departure we drove to Malaga airport, left the car in the free parking area and caught the Cercanía (see previous article about my trip to Cádiz) train to the Malaga María Zambrano train station. This was all so easy and the plan was working out well. We put our bags through the x-ray machines, showed our tickets to the two guards at the entrance to the platform and boarded the train. We found our pre-allocated seats and were soon on our way. As we were leaving at 8pm we were on the Trenhotel, but to save money had not booked beds or a cabin. Instead, our plan was to eat in the restaurant carriage as we thought it would kill some time and that a couple of glasses of wine would help us sleep. The food was very nice considering we were on a train, if a little bit on the pricey side.
After we had eaten we returned to our seats and tried to get some sleep, which it must be said was not easy with the buzz of MP3 players, people talking and erm, making other bodily noises. At 2.30 and, after numerous stops and about 2 and a half hours before we were due to arrive in Valencia, the train pulled into Alcázar de San Juan station. The train was stationery for about 10 minutes and a few people, including a train guard, took the opportunity to smoke cigarettes on the platform. Eventually we got under way again, at which point the man sitting behind me enquired where we were travelling to. I answered “Valencia” and on hearing this the lad in front of me turned to me and said “for Valencia you should have changed at the last station”. Dazed and confused (and tired) me and my wife walked hurriedly down the length of the train to find a guard, who had all been conspicuous by their absence since the train left Malaga. We eventually found four of them sitting and chatting in a cabin. I asked if the train was heading for Valencia. They blanched and confirmed that we indeed, should have alighted at the last station and caught another train due to a problem with the line. We asked what we could do. One of the guards went and found the supervisor, who I can only assume they hoped would produce a magic wand and sort the problem. He told us we would have to change at Tarragona which was about 2 and a half hours away. One guard insisted that they had told people of the required change and asked if we had changed our seats. We had not and at no point was there an announcement. The ideal time to tell us would be at the boarding gate when we showed them our tickets.
We returned to our seats obviously somewhat miffed and broke the news to my sister and brother-in-law. We realised there was little we could do but wait until we arrived in Tarragona. Approximately 4 hours later at 7 o'clock there was still no sign of a stop. In fact there was no sign of anything as it was pitch black outside. I went to see if the buffet car was open; it was and two guards were sitting at the bar. I asked them where we were and how long it was to Tarragona. They all said they did not know as it was dark outside and the line is a very long one etc etc. This was starting to feel like a bad dream, but not as bad as the one where you are standing in front of your classmates in junior school wearing just your Y-fronts. Or was that just me? Right, moving swiftly on.....
Eventually just before 8am we pulled into a station – Zaragoza. We all jumped up and grabbed our bags. Finally we were here, but wait a minute, didn't the guard say to change at Tarragona? By now desperation and tiredness was confusing us. It had been hard to sleep on the train anyway, but the fact that we were not heading to Valencia had made it impossible. We emerged onto a totally deserted platform clutching our suitcases. There were no station guards, and the guards from our train were presumably still chatting in their room. A fellow passenger who was standing in the doorway of the train and asked what we were doing. We told him and he said we should get back on the train and wait until we arrived in Tarragona. At this moment my wife spotted a train to Valencia on a departures screen. Do we stay? Do we get back on? The decision was made for us as our train began to slowly pull out of the station. The train on the screen was due to leave in 13 minutes, so we rushed off to find help. We came across a guard and began explaining our situation. He told us that he worked on the AVE trains, so knew nothing about our train service, but said he would help us. He radioed the station supervisor and explained what we had told him. We heard the supervisor say that we would have to go and buy new tickets. We protested angrily, so the guard marched me and my wife to the supervisors office. We re told her our tale of woe and suddenly she seemed to understand our plight. She grabbed our tickets, rubber stamped them and signed them in triplicate then began to quickly walk out of the office telling us to follow her. We arrived on the platform 2 minutes before the train was due to depart. But where were my sister and Chris and our suitcases? They emerged from a stairwell in the platform and we all bundled onto the train. Once we were on our way we asked the conductor how long the journey to Valencia was. He replied “5 hours”. Another 5 hours on a train seemed daunting, but it was such a relief to be heading in the right direction. We also asked where the buffet car was; only to be told there was not one, so we had to make our half bottle of water, 2 bananas and packet of sugar free mints last until lunchtime. The train finally pulled into the station at 1.30pm, 8 and a half hours after we should have arrived. We had been on trains for over 17 hours (hence the Renfobia).
After a great break in Valencia (see next months Grapevine for details of this great city) the journey home the next day suddenly dawned on us. To ensure the problems with the line had been resolved we walked to the station and enquired at the information desk. He said everything was alright now, and it was. In fact, we arrived back in Malaga 20 minutes ahead of schedule. We all agreed that if and when we used a Trenhotel again we would not go Naturist class, but would look into having a cabin with beds. That said if we had had a cabin this time we would have woken up in Barcelona. Actually on second thought scrap that thought; next time we will fly, drive, hitch-hike, anything but use the train. However, I would still like to try the AVE service to Madrid. The AVE guard we met in Zaragoza told us that the AVE is “European standard” whereas the ARCO Trenhotel is “like Africa”.
So think long and hard about your next journey and how you get there as 17 hours is a big chunk of life to waste.