Back in the 1970s, you could travel by rail all the way from Paris to Lisbon – and Porto – by through train. The gauge change at the border between France and Spain was challenging – this involved jacking up the coaches and changing the bogies – but this, after all, was the Sud Express, one of the grandest of trains.
But nothing is forever, and over the years the Sud, as regulars know it, became a service only between Irún and Lisbon, the carrying of a second portion for Porto apparently no longer worthwhile, and the journey through France ceded to the all conquering Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV).
Even so, there was a restaurant car, couchette coaches, and for the best off, sleeping cars with well appointed berths. However, the coaches were getting older, and to build new replacements for just two trainsets was not a serious proposition. Something would have to be done: when I last saw the Sud leave Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia terminus on New Year’s Day 2009, the stock looked tired and unloved.
So, at the end of February, the Sud Express ran in its traditional loco-and-coaches form for the last time. Two “Hotel Train” Talgo sets – the kind of train I discussed some time ago – have been hired in, so at least there will be a service. But it will be that bit less grand.
The tendency to uniformity, and financial pressure, is universal.