Ski resorts by train

Snowcarbon Journey Planner 2021-22 is ready

Sat 01 May, 2021


Daniel Elkan

Good news. The Snowcarbon Journey Planner is ready for the 2021-22 season.

The purpose of the Journey Planner is to help you view the best schedules to ski resorts in the Alps, further in advance than you otherwise could do.

Back in 1998, when I began discovering the joys of travel to ski resorts by train, something always perplexed me. Although the journeys were great, finding out the actual rail journey options was always difficult.  It seemed absolutely bonkers that governments and rail companies could create the multi-multi billion pound infrastruture that is the European train system, and yet make it so difficult for people to find out journey times in advance.

Fast forward 23 years, with all the internet capability we have, and it's still a wild goose chase to try to find rail timetables. Crazy.

Why don't rail companies provide timetables?
Rail timetables change little from year to year. For most journeys, the schedule changes by only a few minutes.  Sometimes new trains come into existance, with new schedules, which is exciting when it happens. But mostly the timetables are the same from year to year. That makes them quite predictable. Can't they be used as a guide, so that travellers can have at least a scooby doo about journeys in advance?

That's the thing about journey planning.  When you are deciding whether to go by train or not, you first want to get a rough idea.  Whether your train arrives at 17:32 or 17:37 is rarely of consequence. What you need to know is whether the train is going to arrive at 17:32 or 15:32 or 19:32.  That's all that people are asking for: a rough idea of how long the journey takes and what time the trains leave.  It's not a lot to ask.

Of course, rail schedules are complicated things, and organising them so that the trains don't bump or smash into each other is an incredible achievement.  Hats off to the rail companies for that. And it's true that the schedules are not known a year in advance. So the train companies don't know the exact timetable, except nearer the time.

But why can't they at least keep last year's winter timetable online somewhere, or downloadable, so that people can use it as some kind of reference?  That would be most helpful.

What normally happens (which is crazy)
So normally, train companies seem to believe that until tickets are on sale, travellers don't need to see timetables. Because they only make timetables available once tickets are on sale. And so, if it's May or June or July etc, and you want to plan a train journey for the following January, train companies aren't able to help. The notion that travellers might want to get a rough idea of schedules, to do some planning in advance, doesn't seem to figure.

This is hugely annoying generally, but doubly so for winter holidays, which are generally planned further in advance than other kinds of trips.

How the Snowcarbon Journey Planner helps (and how it's made)

Part of the reason for creating the Snowcarbon website was to help skiers and snowboarders find out the best journey schedules between the UK and the Alps. And that's what the Snowcarbon Journey Planner does.  It's a hand-made database, and takes me about three weeks work to update each year.

I initially base the Journey Planner on the previous year's timetables, mapping the dates forward.   The system that we built is unique, which journeys built up from individual train rides (legs of the journey).  What's particularly useful is that not only can you search by date, but for any journey it will tell you what days of the week it runs too. That's useful if you are choosing journeys to match with Saturday - Saturday or Sunday - Sunday accommodation, for example.

Then, when actual schedules become available (about three months in advance) I check all the journeys again against the new times, and adjust anything accordingly.

I use various sources, including the European Rail Timeable (which gives a full array of schedules) and the Rail Map of Europe (which gives the journeys geographical meaning and helps when researching new possible routes).

The huge mistake that rail companies and ticket sellers make online

There's another reason that the Journey Planner may help you - and that's in finding better journey schedules than you would normally find online.  I'll explain.

Many years go, in the age of the steam train, there were train schedules and there were tickets. Tickets were simple and you — or your butler or 'manservant', to use the term from Blackadder — bought them at the railway station. So far so simple.

What happened some time later is a huge scandal in rail travel that no one talks about and many travellers don't realise.

The train companies decided to combine the timetables and the tickets, using algorithms, so they could sell tickets online.  And many of these algorithms, had a funny rule. The rule was that the rail website would only show you journey schedule if it could find tickets that were available. Otherwise it would pretend that the journey didn't exist (or might, if you were lucky, still show the journey but say 'tickets not available'.

This is a catastrophe for the traveller. Because this system is actually not fit for purpose.  Often, the complexity of the different ticket types for each leg of the journey means that they become uncompatible with each other, according to the online system.  A certain ticket type is available on one leg of the journey, but not on another.  Algorithm says 'No' - even though using a more sophisticated system the journey is perfectly bookable. As a result, a perfectly feasable journey is hidden from the traveller, as if it didn't exist. It's a real shocker. And it's why you should never trust what options you see on rail company websites, because there are often better ones that are hidden from you.

The whole problem is caused by unneccessary complexities dreamed up by people at rail companies, thinking in isolation and not realising how things will play out in the real world when these ticket types fail to play nicely with each other. Collectively, a complicated ticketting monster has been created, that no one knows how to control.

Imagine that.  Billions upon billions upon billions of pounds and euros of rail infrastructure.  So costly that the human mind can't comprehend.  And then we have a ticketting system so overcomplicated that travellers can't find journeys that exist.

So, for a certain fraction of these possible journeys, the niche that is rail travel between the UK and the Alps, the Snowcarbon Journey Planner provides a solution to this mess.  It shows you most of the best, recommended journeys.  It doesn't show every possible journey, but it shows the journeys that you'd most likely want to take. It doesn't worry about tickets, because it's not trying to sell you a ticket.  It just shows you the journeys. 

Search by ski resort or search by station

The Journey Planner is normally accessed by the Resorts & Journey Planner section on Snowcarbon.  There you can see a list of ski resorts and click to view the individual journey planner, along with a guide to the resort and much more.  But you can also see the Stations Planner, where you search by train station instead of resort. 

Choose resort, find accommodation, get train tickets

Once you have checked out journey schedules, you might want to find suggestions for accommodation, or get train tickets, or see if there is a ski package with rail travel included. You can check out packages on our ski holidays by train section.  And if you are after guidance on accommodation or which resort would be ideal for your holiday, you can Ask Snowcarbon and I'll be happy to help. 

Snowcarbon doesn't sell train tickets, but what we do is try to provide really useful advice about how to get them. There are different ways of buying tickets, and it isn't a case of 'one size fits all'.  For some journeys, booking online is fine.  For others, it's better to use a rail ticket booking agent to sort everything for you.  On Snowcarbon, you'll find that for each ski resort listed, we have a bespoke 'Book travel' guide, which will tell you about your options. 

If you'd like advice about destinations, suggestions for accommodation or have a question about the journey, just send me an email and I should be able to help.