I was born within the not-so-warm embrace of the French Railways company. My father was a train driver, trained on the last coal engines, then onwards to diesel and electric engines. When you have a parent working for the SNCF, especially working for one of the close-knit technical groups of employees – train drivers, train conductors, tracks supervisors — you pretty much live inside the “Big House”. The friends visiting on weekends are colleagues and their families; many, at least back then, lived in company housing; the kids went to company-run youth camps. And of course our main means of transportation, for long-ish distances, was trains. Lots of them. I almost never paid for a train ticket until the ripe age of 27, with the exception of my trips outside France — where I still got heavy discounts.
When, as a high-school graduate I tried to find a summer job, the first place I went looking was, of course, the “Big House”. And sure enough, they were happy to oblige. After a fortnight spent cramming through a crash-course and an exam, I got certified as a replacement train conductor. Being the son of a well-noted “Rail Baron” — that’s how the train drivers called themselves… sigh! — I was a shoe-in for the job. Because, France being France, railway personnel take lots of vacations during summer, when they’re most needed, of course. So they need temps to fill in. It’s impossible to produce ad-hoc replacements for drivers, so they have to cope with the load, but many other jobs are not that difficult or technical, and for three years I donned the uniform of a train conductor, summers and winters, while other kids toiled under station managers, or, worse, sat idly at ticket booths [the “commercial staff” was back then considered barely part of the company by the drivers and conductors. If you weren’t involved somehow with the trains, you weren’t thought fit to call yourself a cheminot, a real railwayman]. Needless to say, despite all the mileage I had accrued as an “SNCF kid”, working for this old beast gave me a different outlook on things. I have many stories, some of them fit for publication, even. They are mostly anecdotes, the travelogue of a part-time interloper, who posed as a train conductor…
1. Mail Service
One of the things the general public doesn’t see us do, although it’s often right here for all to see, is courier service. Most of it happens in night trains, though, so this is maybe why it’s less obvious. Stuff is loaded on a train at point A, and at each stop until the train reaches the last station, parcels are dropped along the way. Among the myriad of documents a train conductor is issued is a delivery booklet. The employee receiving the parcels from the logistics department in a station — anything from a batch of blank train tickets for a small station to radioactive material for a hospital — signs a receipt, and the load is more or less thrown haphazardly on board a freight wagon, part of a passenger train. Oftentimes, half of a passenger wagon has been converted to freight, so that the agent in charge of freight can travel in more or less comfortable conditions.
The first job is to inventory the parcels, record them one by one on the delivery notebook, and sometimes it can be hundreds of them!, before the train arrives at the first stop, since there may be stuff to be dropped at this station. The first time I was scheduled to do it, I was to take charge of a load of parcels at Paris Austerlitz, on a train going south to Rodez and Agen — the train split in half mid-way, so there were actually two guys doing the same job, one for each half. I went to the logistics office two hours before departure, and a guy shows a huge bin overflowing with an assortment of parcels of various sizes. Gulp. The bin was attached to a small electric cart, and off we go to “my” train. When we arrive at the right carriage, the logistics guy unlocks the door, and starts throwing the parcels inside, without any attention to order.
“Er, wait, maybe we should do this a little more carefully…”
“Hey, kid, you think I have all night to play with you? You’re not even a girl. I’ll make sure you have the same number of parcels as is indicated on my delivery book, and you take over!”
So here I am, standing in a freight carriage, surrounded by hundreds of parcels. Good thing I had come early. I have an hour and a half, plus one hour or so to go to the first station, I should be okay. Right… I never realized the train had left the station, busy as I was trying to organize the parcels by drop-off station, hopefully in a chronological order. We were reaching the end of the Paris suburbs when the train master dropped by.
“So, kid, you’re okay?” he said, not really caring about the answer. And then he whistled in appreciation. “That’s why they put college kids like you on this job. You kids are full of energy and still can think on your feet. The only times I see freight this well organized is in summer. You’ve no idea the mess some of the regular guys can live with. Ah well, I guess you’re done for the night. Don’t forget to wake up at every station!” Apparently, it was also okay to sleep on the job, as long as you woke up at every station. And since my betters and elders said we could, who was I to say different?
After 250 miles and four hours — night trains in France were quite slow back then — I had handed over a fair bit of the parcels to a bunch of stations, and the rest was signed off by the next guy, another student, surprise, surprise, who boarded where I left off. Before the train left, I pointed out a bunch of large cardboard boxes.
“Check these out, they’re for Périgueux.” The largest, or rather the least small city in Périgord, the heart of foie gras, aka goose liver. “They’re whole goose livers, from Hungary, for a Périgord foie gras producer. I guess the geese are less expensive over there…”
Since then, I’ve always been a been doubtful about the mention “Foie Gras du Périgord” on the stuff we bought for Christmas…