Meanderings (from London to Torino/Milano/Paris & back)

Having spent 5 great months working at Radarstation in a research/strategy role, I’m again looking for work, and last week my search took me to Turin and Milan for a couple of meetings and to see a friend, and then home via Paris, because, well, it was on the way.

I flew to Italy using Ryanair; Trenitalia took me on a short trip west to Milan and back again. I took an Artesia TGV (Trenitalia/SNCF France) to Paris, and then the Eurostar back to London (and finally, a Tube home). Inbetween I also used torinese, milanese, and parisian metros, busses in turin, and the Velib bikes in Paris. Phew.

Just a couple of observations:

Booking ryanair was a smooth and easy process (despite gritting my teeth at having to avoid insurance, check-in fees, extra luggage fees, and the offers of rental cars and hotels), and the flight predictably cramped, uncomfortable, and left late (but arrived on time). But that was the deal I’d made, it was what I was expecting, and it was fine – the flight didn’t take long, and hey, it was cheap. I should add that i may have gritted my teeth, but everything worked perfectly. Expectations were met, even if those expectations hadn’t been set high (by previous experience, by reputation, and by the consiously undesigned (under-designed?) branding).

I booked the longer distance trains in advance, like flights. The Turin > Paris trip was somewhat painful to book: first of all, where? Both the french and the italian train companies offered the tickets, but wouldn’t post them to the UK (Trenitalia did offer me the option of picking it up at the departing station). SNCF (the French train company) redirected me to Raileurope (in a semi-whitelabel fashion: bits were branded sncf, bits raileurope). I finally ended up booking it through Raileurope (which both SNCF and Trenitalia pointed me at, ish – still not sure if they are the direct way or a semi-travelagent). Great, until their system failed (between me giving them my payment details and them sending me a confirmation). It told me to phone customer services, but this was on a Sunday night – not so good. I did phone them the next day, and all was well, but smooth it was not. In the end, though, a confirmation arrived in my inbox, the tickets arrived in the post, and I arrived at the station to meet my train. The journey itself was lovely – I’ve had worse views than weaving through the alps at 9am, alternating between sunshine and snow.

As expected, passports were checked on board, as we crossed the IT/FR border (once on each side, by the respective police forces). I suppose it used to be the norm, but I found it odd that it was basically a visual check: does this passport/identity card/document look and feel real? There was no checking against a database, no portable networked device, just a glance up to compare photo to face, a tilt to check for hologram/embossed bits, and that was it. To me, a passport check means checking against a computer whether I am a permitted visitor, which invariably involves scanning the machine readable code on my passport, not a check whether the passport itself is real. Of course passports existed before international databases were even concieved – but did the the police on the train have a hand-scrawled list of people to watch out for, amongst the skiiers and tourists? Who knows. Just a thought.

The various busses, metros, Paris RER, and train trip to Milan I just booked at the station/onboard on the day; mostly straighforward, although the Paris Metro/RER ticket machines have an incredibly funky interface involving a large (1 axis) roller and clunky onscreen bits, which confused me quite a lot; I ended up choosing to talk to a person in broken french instead (which proves quite how rejected that interface was – my french is very limited).

The Velib bikes in Paris were a perfect example of a service designed from scratch – the service concept, the product (the bikes), the primary touchpoints (the terminals and the locking stations), and the interface. And mostly, it all worked. It wasn’t perfect: although I could find a bike whenever I wanted, I did have trouble finding a parking slot to deposit my bike at my destination, and ended up with a walk from the nearest empty slot. But the bikes worked, the system as a whole was great, and when I did find my intended destination-bike-rack to be full, the console showed me exactly where the nearest spaces were available. Apparently they have a fleet of trucks that go around at night re-arranging the bikes to make sure they are where they will be needed in the morning. An interesting change in scale of the city between walking and bus/metro/RER for a tourist, and I’m sure it has a similar (although differently experienced) effect for people who use them daily. They have an interesting business model, too – privately financed and run in exchange for access to advertising points at each terminal. Nicely implemented.

And finally, the Eurostar back home. Booking was smooth, although they could make certain available features (would you prefer UK or continental plugsockets at your seat? nice.) more visable. The train exterior still looked as sleek and modern as it always has, but the interiors felt noticably dated.

And yeah, I did play tourist, too.

Not that the photos from my trip (which can be found in a still growing set on flickr) show that, but still.

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