Saturday, 10 May 2008

Sophie’s voice

It should have been clear from the very outset after Sophie, our train manager welcomed us all aboard the London-bound Eurostar from Paris that this was not going to be a regular, uneventful trip. There was something just a little too sing-songy in her tannoyed “bienvenue”, wishing us a pleasant journey and volunteering to answer any questions we might have had, to augur any thing other than premonitory misgivings. But those were easily ignored.

Although it’s generally meant as a polite yet ultimately meaningless platitude, such an invitation awakes the pedant in even the most mild-mannered traveller, especially one with a low concentration threshold, and to whom questions spring to mind which would tax the genteel patience of the undoubtedly delightful Sophie, even if she were a Saint.

Did the woman really know what sort of Pandora’s box she was opening I mused to myself. After all to anyone with even the slightest smidgeon of sophistry, Sophie’s was an incitement to full blown pedantry.

Dangerous territory indeed, particularly as the burning question on my lips that morning - after I had been roused from my slumber by the dawn chorus, - was why do cuckoos cuckoo? And nobody had as yet been able to provide me with a reply.

Staring out at the scenery as we hurtled through northern France at a mighty 300km per hour, I was mulling over the possibility of seeking out Sophie to find out whether indeed she had any idea of the answer. But before I could give it another thought, the train unexpectedly ground to a halt.

Now the Paris-London Eurostar trip is something of a modern marvel. It only takes two hours and 15 minutes to complete the around 400km trip, city centre to city centre. That’s thanks largely to the British finally having got their act together after more than a decade to build a new high-speed track running in to St Pancras.

From 1996 until November last year, the trains used existing lines into Waterloo and after zipping through northern France, the Eurostar would then trundle along the remaining 90kms the other side of the channel at an embarrassingly almost 19th century speed.

Thankfully that’s all been confined to the pages of history, although the recent opening of the new link hasn’t been without its hiccoughs. In April passengers from London to Paris spent a night discovering the joys of low speed travel on the high-speed link when the journey turned into a 12-hour nightmare with two changes of trains.

So when the unscheduled stoppage was followed-up moments later by Sophie’s dulcet tones, a warning bell rang out.

She informed us ominously that the train had not yet been cleared for entering the tunnel – exactly the same explanation that had eventually been offered to passengers of that 12-hour marathon. In fact Eurostar’s operators, must have learned something from that incident, because Sophie promised she would get back to us with more news as soon as possible. The lack of information had been one of the major criticisms levelled at the company back in April.

And sure enough, moments later, she was on the tannoy to say that there had been an “incendiary incident’ – obviously Eurostarspeak for a “fire” - in the service tunnel, and the train would be held in position until cleared to go through – estimated to be around 50 minutes.

More insincere platitudes followed but delivered with such heartfelt apologies that clearly Euroastar must be doing something right in its recruitment policy for train managers. And then we were left with deafening silence.

The seconds quickly yawned into those promised 50 minutes with murmuring passengers wondering why the train hadn’t been stopped at a station rather than in the middle of nowhere. At least then the nicotine-hungry would have been able to pop out for a quick cigarette break or others could simply have stretched their legs in the fresh air.

Ah no, obviously Eurostar couldn’t possibly know what was happening further down the line as the hopeless lack of communication had proved back in April – especially in these days of instant messaging. And if to prove such a point, an initial call to those waiting to meet me at the other end, resulted in my discovering that according to the notice board the train was still scheduled to arrive on time.

Time up and waiting over, the incendiary incident appeared to be under control and we were on our way again. Minutes later our train manager piped up to confirm that we were moving – just in case we had had any doubts presumably. “Attagirl Sophie, there’s nothing like telling us what we wanted to hear and already know.”

Sadly the sing-songy note had disappeared from her voice to be replaced with a slightly embarrassed tone and the offer to contact her if connections had been missed. The implied and fervent hope seemed to be that passengers wouldn’t prevail too much for the proffered information.

As the train pulled into St Pancras just 70 minutes after it had apparently already arrived, Sophie was back on the tannoy for a final time to thank us for our understanding – as if we had been given any choice in the matter – and not to offer us any compensation.

Thanks Eurostar, and thank you Sophie. And by the way, why do cuckoos cuckoo?

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