Eurostar: From Channel hop to hostage drama

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

"We advise travellers booked today not to come to our stations. Please exchange your tickets online for another day." So said Eurostar after Tuesday's events in northern France.

As you know, the Festival of the Burning of the Tyres in Calais –this year enacted by MyFerryLink workers – is traditionally followed by the ceremonial Cancellation of the Eurostars and its counterpart the Dismay of the Passengers (also known as the Stations of the Cross).

I happened to be booked on a Eurostar train to London from Lille Europe. This is where lines from Paris and Brussels converge for the journey to Calais and, demonstrators permitting, through the Channel Tunnel. Besides the hundreds of passengers seeking to travel from Lille itself, the throng was boosted by people arriving from the South of France expecting to make a quick change of train, plus a Eurostar trainload or two from Brussels who could get no further. Most were British, and thus easily riled by a stream of French-only announcements – apart from an enigmatic statement that "I give you more information as soon as impossible."

As fires burned in the tunnel, the cross-Channel train operator cancelled 25 services – leaving 15,000 people stranded in the wrong country. Among them were Sue and Ken Elliott from Manchester, the coolest people in Lille. The couple were easy to spot because they were shivering in their T-shirts, shorts and sandals, and had no luggage.

Mr and Mrs Elliott were halfway through a camping trip to Kent. "We thought we would go to Lille for the day," Sue told me. A sound plan, since the train takes just an hour from east Kent to the premier city in the north of France. But when they arrived at Lille Europe station for the homeward journey, they found not all was well with the world of travel.

"We came to get the train back at 4.30pm but then they said everything was cancelled. We don't know where we're going to end up today." The two hostages to a French strike refused to be downhearted. "You've got to laugh," said Sue. Sadly, some people were in tears, seeing their plans for family reunions or professional commitments dashed by a dispute involving a different form of transport – rather as if an air-traffic control strike had put paid to bus travel.

Just the ticket!

Even though the tunnel opened the same evening, Eurostar's decision was shrewd: it gave passengers certainty, and a chance to find a hotel room (with Eurostar picking up the bill for anything up to £150). But how to get everyone home? Eurostar's cunning plan was to rebook everyone online.

A spokesman said: "We understand it's a difficult time for our customers, and want to reassure our customers that we're doing everything we can to respond as quickly as possible to web forms, and through our phone line and social media."

The train operator's last debacle was barely five months ago, when a fire on a vehicle in the tunnel shut down services. As with the latest closure, Eurostar was not responsible for the problem but had to deal with the aftermath. On that occasion, passengers were told to rebook by phone through the call centre – which had closed for the evening and would not be open until 8am the next day.

So, this time it has a new system. You tap in your details and request either a refund or the more popular option of being booked on a different service the following morning, afternoon or evening.

Like everyone else, I imagine, I ticked the box for the earliest possible escape. Seconds later, an email arrived thanking me for completing the form and saying I would be contacted soon.

A day later, another message arrived:

"Dear Traveller, You should have received a message from us confirming the new time of your train following the cancellations yesterday."

I emailed back to say, no, I hadn't heard anything. Eurostar says the case was inadvertently closed. Instead of prolonging the delay, I bought another ticket.

With 15,000 people trying to squeeze on to trains that were already heavily booked, you might think Eurostar might concentrate on getting everyone where they needed to be. But anyone in the queue at Lille station who hooked on to the free wi-fi could book on the next service for a one-way price of €180 (four times the cost of my original ticket). "Booking for our trains has to stay open in order to facilitate these exchanges," Eurostar says. The firm is refunding the money I spent.

Online's no lifeline

When services started again from Lille station, the people who ignored the instruction to rebook online and instead started to queue at Lille station at 6am on Tuesday were all given seats on the first train out. Passengers who went instead to the Eurostar ticket office in the station were offered the chance of some trans-European exploration: an afternoon train in the wrong direction, from Lille to Brussels, where they could board a non-stop service to London, arriving at 8pm.

Once again, the tradition of Doing the Exact Opposite of What Eurostar Says seems a good policy during disruption.