Sunday, 11 May 2008

Second class service at first class prices

Travelling first class on the Eurostar from Paris to London (or vice versa) isn’t really anywhere close to the romantic vision of a more genteel bygone era. It certainly isn’t luxury by any stretch of the imagination and is in fact much more oriented to the business traveller eager to cut down journey time and cram in a couple of hours work on the computer – or God help us all – shouting into the mobile ‘phone.

The trip becomes even less of a luxury and more of an indulgence if you’ve bought a discounted ticket to treat yourself to a hoped-for touch of comfort. There are definite shortcomings.

For the not inconsiderable sum of more than €200 you’ll have a non-exchangeable, non-refundable ticket, so woe betide you if you miss your train.

There’s not even the chance of jumping the queue to go through either ticket control or both sets of passport control before entering the huge waiting hall in an attempt to find somewhere to sit before boarding.

In addition you can’t use the business-premier class lounge at Gare du Nord station. It’s reserved exclusively for those who have coughed up the full asking price.

So right from the start then there is a sort of Orwellian selectivity even among first class trippers – ie; they’re all equal but some (full-payers and Eurostar employees) are more equal than others.”

You won’t be allowed to enter the hallowed halls for free drinks and nibbles – them’s the rules and there’s absolutely NO bending room.

Still in theory at least the service aboard the train should be in keeping with the price tag. But London-bound May Day early morning travellers were in for a disappointment.

First class was not exactly packed and the crew – charming to the nth degree it has to be admitted – were able to be terribly attentive. In fact sometimes it was just a touch too much.

As the train started its journey they came rattling through the carriage with the drinks trolley. Now although it’s never really too early in the day for a glass of champagne, even this far from teetotal passenger had to refuse several of the repeated offers to top up his glass over the next hour.

Perhaps it was a ploy by the staff to ply travellers with as much booze as possible so that they wouldn’t notice the paucity of the food on offer and the lack of choice.

When the meal tray arrived we were presented with a sad-looking salad embarrassed presumably at being undressed. Moments later a rather self-conscious steward looked even more ashamed than the salad as he offered us the CHOICE of salmon or cheese for the main dish – but obviously NOT both as would befit the normal course of a meal in France.

Dropped jaws all round as we plumped for the rubber-soled salmon and the beautifully British-stewed vegetables.

And even more astonishment when the steward had the gall to ask whether we had enjoyed the meal – or the literal French translation “Did it please you?”

Maybe the lack of food was simply a public holiday aberration as on the return trip three days later at exactly the same time of day we were offered a full lunchtime choice of rubber lamb or rubber salmon.

Finally one rather curious fact is that travelling first class does not actually get you through the barrier at the other end any faster as for some reason the carriage always seems to be the furthest away.

And you quickly realise that the extra cost hasn’t just failed to give you very much more comfort during the two hour 15 minute trip, it has also given you no time advantage you had hoped to gain over fellow passengers as you pigeon-step your way slowly to the exit.

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