The delayed 16.22 service to London pulled away from the buffers with a sigh and passengers began to lurch unsteadily in the direction of the buffet car. The indignant tones of an American woman, who had arrived at her booked seats to discover that she and her companion were not seated together, resonated throughout the carriage: “I paid 800 bucks for these seats, I’m not having this!” Her companion, an Englishman and therefore perhaps more used to rail-related disappointment, shrugged in defeat and acceptance at their fate.
Having paid a not insignificant sum for my own two tickets – £182.50pp for this leg alone (booked two weeks before departure) – I too had been dismayed to find on boarding that my allocated seats were not, despite their numbered appearance at the time of booking (carriage three, seats 24 and 25), together. Shortly after, the unhappy American and her companion left the carriage – out past the loos marked ‘not in service’ – in the hope of finding two seats seated together on the apparently full train. Welcome to last Saturday’s direct Eurostar service from Avignon.
Joining the queue for the buffet car a short while later, the menu promised a tantalising array of Waitrose sandwiches but on reaching the counter I was told that all were unavailable. I asked staff why this should be the case when the train had departed Avignon just a short while earlier. It “always happens” came the response. “We can only carry a certain amount of food from London and most of it gets sold on the outbound journey,” the busy staff member added.
Why don’t they re-stock in Avignon if this is a known problem? I put the question to a spokesperson for Eurostar on my return, only to be told that they had been experiencing problems with demand since the Waitrose menu launched. When did the menu launch? “April.” Less than halfway into the scheduled five-hours-and-50-minute journey, an announcement confirmed that the buffet car was now serving only drinks.
I later came across a member of staff wearing a ‘Train Manager’ badge and asked why I and others had been allocated seats that appeared to be seated together at the time of booking, but actually turned out to be window seats on opposite sides of the carriage. My polite – it’s not his fault, after all – query was merely met with a shrug and a silent pursing of the lips. Returning to my seat, passengers were queuing outside the carriage’s remaining working loos with hands clamped firmly over mouths and noses as a deep stench emanated from the over-used compartments. A fitting end to the journey.
Since first boarding a Eurostar train in the late Nineties, I have thrilled at travelling to the Continent via a sub-sea tunnel that is a true wonder of the modern world. Routes permitting, I will always opt for a Eurostar train over the plane. When I booked my seats two weeks before departure it was cheaper than flying and more convenient to travel to Avignon on the Eurostar service that operates direct from London throughout the summer months. However, climbing aboard Eurostar trains in recent years I have found carpets embedded with stains, French staff proffering deflated croissants with something approaching an air of embarrassment and access to Wi-Fi still a thing of the future. Compare this to my experience of travelling on Thalys, another European rail operator, where interiors are plush, appetising dishes presented with a flourish and free Wi-Fi is a given.
A spokesperson for Eurostar said, “When booking on the Eurostar website, the system automatically allocates seats and the default is to seat passengers together. However, if the service is very busy at the time of booking it will seat you as close together as possible. Regarding the catering, the team had been unable to fully load the train in London and this was an isolated incident that has since been addressed. As part of our Tread Lightly commitment, we choose to load all of our services at their origin point for both the outward and return journeys. This means that we effectively cut in half the number of journeys made to our stations to stock our services. Since introduction, our new range of Waitrose food is proving tremendously popular with customers, and unfortunately on this service the combination of a problem with the loading and the high demand over a long journey meant that there was a shortage of products available. This is being addressed by our catering team. In terms of the toilets, on occasion faults may arise and if this happens the crew will take them out of service. We do have a toilet in each of the 18 coaches, and so in the rare event that one or two toilets are out of use there are plenty more nearby that passengers can use as an alternative. The train did leave Avignon 16 minutes late due to congestion in the station but was able to make up the time en route and arrived in London one minute early.”
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for the beleaguered cross-channel rail passenger in the form of much-needed competition after Deutsche Bahn, the German owned rail operator, was recently granted the right to operate London-bound trains through the Channel Tunnel from 2016. Eurostar’s days as a monopoly are now numbered and if last Saturday’s journey is an accurate reflection of their service as a whole, the operator has much to do to prevent its eponymous star from slipping into the descendant.