Eurostar’s problems

16 February 2010

Travelling frequently on Eurostar (so much so that I’m in possession of a carte blanche card which is a frequent traveller card with perks), I have experienced a few delays, including one journey which took 1 hour longer than scheduled, but in general I have been spared the horror stories. I will continue to use Eurostar for travelling between London and Brussels or Paris, partly because I prefer the train to the plane, and partly because there aren’t many alternatives. There must exist a scope for competition, and it won’t be a bad idea to increase the number of train operators that run under the Channel.

The need for improvement is indisputable, after the recent debacle. Eurostar had messed things up pretty badly, when its services were disrupted by the snow and cold. There is much to be criticized for the lack of clear contingency plans, but opprobrium is rightly reserved for the way in which the company treated the passengers. The passengers had to endure grim conditions, without food, water or toilet, when the trains stopped running. They were left in the dark both literally and figuratively, not knowing when they’d be taken to safety and comfort. No one seemed to know what was happening, and what was going to happen. It was chaotic and disgraceful. Delays caused by the weather are not subject to compensation, so even though Eurostar made ‘enhanced compensation’ to those who were stuck in the tunnel, a lot of people travelling during the snowy days either sought refund or exchange the ticket, or faced a much longer jouney. That was not a great choice.

Corporate culture and responsiveness are tested in these difficult circumstances. It may be unfair to compare Eurostar’s reactions with another train operator, because they operate in different conditions and markets, however it’s tempting nevertheless. Thalys, which runs many services between Brussels and Paris, also suffered from the weather. Thalys, without prompting, not only sent out an apology in e-mails addressed individually to the Thalys Card holders, but also credited Thalys accounts with extra points (similar to airline miles) as a gesture of good-will to those whose journeys were disrupted. The e-mail was short, and did not seek to explain or justify what happened. It just said sorry.

Eurostar could and must do better than it had managed this winter.