Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Plus ça change

A curious thing happened on the way back to Paris. The Eurostar stopped at Lille; not unusual in itself except on the opposite platform another Eurostar - bound for London - had also stopped. We were told "technical problems" meant we had to get off our Eurostar immediately and board the other Eurostar. Passengers on the other train were told the same. We struggled with sleeping children and bags and got off. The "immediate" bit was problematic: the two platforms were separated by a glass partition and nobody thought to open the doors in it. We Paris-bound passengers stood our side looking quizzically at the London-bound passengers looking quizzically at us. It was like being on either side of a fish tank except less colourful. Eventually, we boarded their Eurostar and they boarded ours and both set off 40 minutes late. There was no explanation for the bizarre train-swop just a cursory apology over the intercom. One smartly dressed young Frenchman suggested "technical problems" might be an euphemism for a stroppy Gallic traindriver who had done his 35 hours and wanted to go home. He said: "We still have strikes in France you know." I nodded as if I did not know.

I do wish Eurostar demanded of all staff a minimum standard of politeness. The young Frenchwoman at the Eurostar help desk at St Pancras watched me struggling with several bags (containing among other things two dolls, one Peppa Pig, one cuddly dog/bear toy and a blue teddy called Fred - yes I found one) and La Fille. I told her I had lost my ticket somewhere in the departure hall and asked if it would be possible to have a duplicate. She responded curtly: "You'll have to go back and look for it." I told her I already had. She said: "Well go back and look again. I can give you a replacement ticket but it'll cost £15." On arrival at the Gare du Nord, I approached a French Eurostar employee to ask where I could get the compensation claim form for delays. She snapped: "There's no reimbursement. It has to be an hour late." In contrast, a couple of months ago a stupid error meant I arrived three hours early for the Eurostar at Waterloo. A young woman member of staff, seeing I was slightly distressed and seeing I had a toddler, dashed off and returned with a replacement ticket for the next departing train. "You don't want to be hanging around do you?" she said.

The recent combination of delays and rudeness is particularly galling as we are Channel-hopping regularly and giving Eurostar quite a lot of business. Between the Frenchman, his mother, my stepdaughter, La Fille and I, we took five separate Eurostar trains over Christmas and New Year. Three of them were between 45 minutes and an hour late. Sparkly new station and "high-speed" line opened by the Queen; sullen staff and trains with "technical problems". Another triumph of style over substance.

All in all it was a rude journey from start to finish. I began on a bus to get to the Underground to get to St Pancras (part of the hike getting to and from Paris now involves). It was standing room only and nobody stood up to let the Fille sit down. A woman with a child at the back shouted: "Isn't anyone going to get up and let that little girl sit down?" Nobody moved. The manic driver, who had clearly mistaken south London for Monaco, threw the bus around and braked with the finesse of a novice performing an emergency stop. As we veered round a corner the Fille landed on her bottom at the feet of a middle-aged man in a tweed cap who did not appear to have any physical disability preventing him from standing. "Oops!" she said. He looked at her and began a detailed study of his brogues. "Shame on you all," said the young woman with child at the back.

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