Today I’m starting a three day whistle stop tour of Western Europe taking in Belguim, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Holland by train. I’m taking a 3 year career break from the rail industry to go back to uni so am making the most out of my staff travel facilities before I have to hand them back and consign myself to the confines of Leeds for the next few years.
My adventure got off to a fantastic start as Belgium railwaymen are on strike and Eurostar have cancelled all trains to Brussels. It may have messed up my plans but it is a good “told you so” opportunity with regards to my recent blog on unions destroying the rail industry and that any plans to renationalise the UK’s network only give unions even more power to bring the country to a standstill and also secure huge salaries and benefits, paid for out of a central pot! (See “the unions and the railways!” https://paulhowden1982.wordpress.com). The CGSP union have managed to bring almost every regional, intercity and international train to a halt across Belgium and according to their website (after a bit of Google Translate) offer all it’s members €30 strike pay to cover some of their lost income from downing tools. (http://www.cgsp-acod-bru.be/SNCB-GREVE-GENERALE-lundi-30-juin-_a424.html). It also raises questions about socialist swaying countries in general but that’s not for here!
When everything is going well Eurostar offer a top notch service and I have no cause for complaints but when it goes wrong it seems to go disastrously wrong. Their seems to be a tendency on all railways to be poor in keeping customers informed when they can’t keep them moving. On the continent my past experience has been that they care even less about managing perturbations and if you miss a connection into a last service of the day and find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere overnight then so be it. I think the UK has issues between different TOC’s but I would feel confident travelling late at night between London and Weston super Mare for example. I know that should I miss the booked connection at Bristol Temple Meads I will be offered an unsafe taxi ride paid for by First Great Western. When you book European travel tickets on SNCF voyages ( http://uk.voyages-sncf.com/en/?PREX=T_LSP_525E4C3F171F6&source=google_adwords&affiliate=RELGOO004&gclid=CjkKEQjwlcSdBRD3wva3-KOAo80BEiQAjNIhif-t0XgAe0LecQbNS-Vo784PoAqVCPFLySWdru5cErPw_wcB&ectrans=1)they offer crazy 5 and 10 minute connections between long distance services that I am yet to make on any of my European adventures seriously messing up any travel intinaries. The Railteam alliance between different operators and different nations allows travel on later trains when passengers are delayed on an earlier leg however trains in Europe may be faster, cheaper and more luxurious and modern in general they are not as frequent as in the UK so a missed connection can lead to significant delays. I’m always dubious about short connections because trains inevitably arrive a few minutes behind schedule even when they are “on time” leaving a sprint to make a 5 minute connection that in reality is 2minutes. Fast journey times are only good for marketing purposes if most passengers do achieve them in reality! There seems a lack of onus on the continent to run on schedule. They seem a lot more laid back about dispatching trains on time. None of this ” doors close 30 seconds before departure”! Perhaps the UK’s performance driven privatised railway with its PPM (public performance measure) is not such a bad thing!
So I left West Yorkshire at half past 6 with Eurostar website showing delays on services to Brussels. By 730am when I’m hurtling towards London the website now says all trains to Brussels are cancelled all day! Once again showing poor information provision! On arrival at St Pancras one would have thought Eurostar would have pulled out all the stops to assist passengers, especially ones like myself who we’re happy to accept Brussels was not to be and were happy to travel to Lille (France- today’s end of the line for Brussels trains). But no, I couldn’t just board my booked train which was only going as far as Lille. I had to cancel my ticket and rebook on the same train. I had to stand in a queue for over an hour and missed that train despite 95% of people in the queue being passengers who were waiting to rebook for tomorrow when services resume. It didn’t occur to Eurostar to form a separate queue for people who wanted to change their travel plans to a different destination today. Instead people were further held up by Eurostar’s inability to manage the disruption. I’m always critical of the rail industry not for the problems that occur. Strikes, infrastructure failures and weather I appreciate do occur. It is the poor management of customers during these incidents that is incredibly frustrating!
After a lot of faffing about I ended up on a train bound for Disneyland, sharing a carriage with lots of excitable children and selfish parents who don’t think showing their kids a film on their I-Pad without headphones might actually be rather rude. I like Disney’s Frozen but I’m sure there are people in the carriage working, reading, sleeping or who just want some peace and quiet who are not impressed! Why are people so thoughtless to the people around them?
A few hours later I’m at Marne La Vallee A.K.A Disneyland Paris not Brussels as planned. A short hop into Paris on the RER and then I’m on a double deck TGV non stop Gare de l’est to Metz to recover my original plan with a quick hop to Luxembourg then back to Metz and overnight stop before venturing into Germany tomorrow. The TGV train is smart, clean and has a modern look with information screens, power sockets and all mod cons. (Better then a voyager!). Seats are relatively spacious with mixture of 2+2 and table seats. Unfortunately I’m unlucky enough to be seated next to a guy who spends the 90 minute journey filing his nails. Apart from being covered in nail filings the journey was fast and comfortable. About 15 minutes after leaving Paris we are on the dedicated high speed line, cruising along until we enter the conventional line near Metz an hour later. I Imagine HS2 to be similar when built. I have to say that I was always on the fence with HS2, more because I think the vast amount of cash could be better spent on improving the current infrastructure not because I’m a a member of the NIMBY brigade. Although every time I travel on the French high speed TGV lines it does edge my opinion more in favour! Maybe I’m being cynical but I can’t help but think somehow we will mess HS2 up though and not really reap the benefits that it could offer!
French TGV trains are reservation compulsory so you have to book a seat in advance (by advance that can be 25 minutes before like I did today) so it means except during perturbations to the service there are no full and standing services like in the UK. I’m not sure I’m in favour of compulsory reservation. It would be a culture shock when you are used to turn up and go like in the UK but with so many advance purchase tickets in now in circulation particularly out of the peaks perhaps it’s not such a crazy idea.
All in all the day ended better then I thought it would when I was in a massive queue at St Pancras 12 hours ago. I managed to avoid the Belgium strikers and apart from Brussels-Namur -Luxembourg covered everything I had planned. Time for food, beer and the Germany game in the hotel before being Munchen bound in the morning!