Skiing: Eurostar's piste de resistance

A big grey train ride, the longest you can take from Britain, begins this winter. Eurostar's link to the Alps aims to tempt skiers from the skies. Stephen Wood reports on the route of the future.
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Regine Tete will be busy on 13 December. Apart from all the usual Saturday transfers that her company, Autocars Martin, runs to more than a dozen ski resorts, it will also send a fleet of coaches to Moutiers and Bourg St Maurice railway stations in the late afternoon: the first direct Eurostar service from London to the French Alps begins that day. Leaving Waterloo at 8.57am, the train arrives at Moutiers at 5.41pm and Bourg St Maurice at 6.27pm. The coaches will offer the Eurostar passengers (678 of them, if the train is full) transport to resorts such as Val d'Isere and Val Thorens.

At Autocars Martin, they are keeping calm about how full their coaches could be. Tour operators will probably organise transfers to the major destinations, leaving Regine Tete's company to pick up the bits and pieces - independent travellers and skiers heading for smaller resorts such as Pralognan-la-Vanoise and La Rosiere. But at those resorts they are far from calm. Hit by the decline in the local skiing market, many small French resorts have formed a marketing organisation, Club Montagne, and the members in the Rhone-Alpes region are excited about the custom that Eurostar will deliver to their doorstep.

Just listen to Jean-Pierre Jouneau in La Rosiere's marketing department. "The Eurostar will radically change the skiing business in this area," he says. "Because they have to organise long transfers from the airports, British tour operators have always concentrated on taking their clients to just a few, big resorts - it's simpler for them. But now British skiers can travel independently on the train, and have the freedom to go wherever they want. And of course they would rather go to small skiing villages than to huge, industrial resorts." Jouneau is optimistic enough to expect business with British skiers to double this year, thanks partly to the two independent operators, Hannibals and Ski Esprit, who are joining Erna Low and Ski Olympic in offering trips to La Rosiere this season.

But at this end of the railway line, the new service seems to be causing less excitement. Eurostar's schedule is a toe-in-the-water job, with just one service a week in each direction. Since both run on Saturday, and the journey takes eight hours, two different trains have to be used - with the absurd consequence that the one which arrives in Bourg St Maurice then has to go back without passengers to Paris, to resume its weekday job on the London-Paris service. Eurostar says it is contemplating running more trains, but not this season.

The company's pricing has been tentative, too. When the service was announced in the spring, the "standard class" fare was to be pounds 199 return; when Eurostar finally set its prices at the beginning of this month, two lower, "promotional" fares had been added. From 3 to 24 January, pounds 199 will buy a first-class return: in standard class, the fare is pounds 129. During the rest of the season (which ends with the inbound train on 25 April), the standard-class fare will be pounds 149. The promotional fares are, however, "subject to availability and conditions": if Eurostar can sell seats at the pounds 199 price, for a fully flexible ticket, it will do so.

Quite why the fares were not finalised until this month is a mystery, although Eurostar says that arrangements with its railway partners and government agencies took longer than expected. How well the tickets are selling remains a mystery, too: Eurostar said last week that it did not yet have any sales figures, which - with a computerised booking system - seems rather surprising.

But the big tour operators are clearly treating the train as a niche product - because for them, it is. Figures from Inghams earlier this week showed that a mere 0.2 per cent of its bookings are on Eurostar; a spokesman for another of the "big six" operators admitted that the service was "not selling as well as we had hoped". The danger is that, for them, the Eurostar may be more trouble than it is worth. True, the preview trip to Bourg St Maurice last March for tour operators and journalists was misleading - half-empty carriages and exceptional hospitality did induce a euphoria one does not normally associate with travel to a ski resort. And yes, eight hours is a long time to spend on a train, although with a book, a Walkman and a window seat, it is infinitely preferable to queuing, hauling skis and polluting the upper atmosphere with aviation fuel.

Certainly, it would be better if the trains ran at night, but with the cancellation of the "Euro-sleeper" contract in July, there are no sleeping cars which comply with Channel Tunnel fire regulations - and, anyway, high-speed tracks in France take such a pounding that they are closed at night for maintenance.

Nevertheless, the convenience and simplicity of the Eurostar service are seductive. You dump your skis in the train's luggage compartment at Waterloo and don't see them again until you are in the Alps - without, as Eurostar points out, having to pay the fee of at least pounds l2 that tour operators demand to guarantee your skis' transit by plane. Resort reps will travel on the train to offer advice, hand out piste maps and issue lift passes. And with the Eurostar's new fares, the train can compete on price with charter flights.

And at the other end, you can forget those long airport transfers. At Bourg St Maurice station you have only to change platforms to catch the funicular railway up to Les Arcs 1600, and Autocars Martin will run you up the dozen kilometres to La Rosiere. Or, better still, you could take a taxi to explore the small village resorts such as Peisey, Pralognan and St Francois - they will be hoping that, despite the Eurostar's tentative start, the Good Skiing Guide is right in its prediction that within five years, 50 per cent of skiers travelling to the area will go by train.