Paris to London...in 18 hours??!

Paris Travel Blog

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Heard the Channel Tunnel was closed so went to the Gare du Nord to see what the score was for my return journey to London. Turned up to find at least 400 people crammed into the Eurostar terminal. There was a mass queue to the ticket office which was moving at the pace of centimetres every 10 minutes. A Canadian tourist who’d spent 4 hours in the queue (because she’d heard chinese whispers that trains were running later that day) reached the front to discover that they were only offering refunds or exchanges for travel after the 27th….I left the queue.

The terminal was freezing and people were huddled around the one member of staff that Eurostar had deployed to give “information”. People without money were panicking about hotels (no information available), people were asking whether Eurostar would reimburse them for flights (no information), families who’d already been waiting for 7 hours were asking if the waiting room could be opened because it was heated (No), could Eurostar arrange train tickets to Calais? (don’t know). There were no signs, notices or announcements. The Eurostar telephone helpline was closed.

What gem of information could the Eurostar official give us? “We don’t know what’s happening or when the trains will be running. We can’t get any updates.”…Thanks! Maybe he should have checked the Eurostar website – it had already announced that no trains would be running on Sunday or Monday!
I was lucky enough to have friends in the area who I could stay with. Many did not even have the money to stay in hotels and were faced with the prospect of being thrown out when the terminal closed at 1am. I spoke to one couple (students) who’d saved only enough cash for their trip. They didn’t have credit cards and had to call home to get their parents to pay for a hotel.

Monday 21st December 2009
0800
Got on the train to Lille so I could connect with a train to Calais. It was rammed full of Brits trying to get home. The train crawled for 2 hours through the snowy landscape and got in late into Lille. We missed our connecting train to Calais.
2 hour wait in Lille. Sat in McDonalds to keep out of the biting cold. There was a funfair running with nobody in it blaring Mariah Carey’s “All I need for Christmas is you.” I hate Mariah Carey.
Midday

Taking 2nd connecting train to Calais. This train is also crammed full of Brits. One and a half hour onward journey to Calais.

1330

Reach Calais station and, because of the numbers of people piling out of the trains, it takes 15 minutes just to get out of the small building.
Get outside to find the earlier train’s passengers still standing around waiting for buses to take them to the port. There are at least 300 people outside the entrance to Calais gare. This includes dozens of families with babies and toddlers who have been to Disneyworld. The place is covered in a thick blanket of snow and it’s icily cold with a chill wind. The kids are shivering.

SNCF has deployed one official to “help”. He tells us all to stand at the “shuttle stop”. The Port Shuttle takes 45 minutes to arrive and then stops at the other end of the Place de la Gare which is about 20 metres away from the shuttle stop. People scramble onto the shuttle bus which is full in minutes. The people who’d been patiently waiting at the shuttle stop are left waiting. The SNCF official fails to take charge or give families with children priority to board. He who pushes in, wins.
After watching 3 buses fill up and go (obviously I’ve not got the killer instinct) a number of us decide to walk the 5kms in the snow to Calais port. This includes families carrying toddlers and suitcase. I’m grateful that I only had a cabin case to lug.
2.30pm to 5pm

At least 500 people standing outside the Port patiently queuing to get into the Port Terminal. There are no signs, no announcements, no staff and no information. I’m wondering whether I actually need to queue because I’ve already booked a ticket. Unfortunately, there is no one to ask.
Suddenly a Port Official sticks up a notice on the front door which says in French “Foot passengers this way”. There is an arrow on the sign which points in the opposite direction to the flow of the queue. The arrow also points to outside of the building. I ask her if this is right as there is nothing outside apart from crowds? She looks at the sign and realises that the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. We give her a pen so she can correct her own sign!

After waiting an hour in the queue, I find out that I don’t actually need to queue in that area as I have a reservation. I see an old woman faint in the crowd but she is reliant on the public to help her as the first aid room is closed.

Go through customs to the waiting area. There is no sign of a boat and no staff to give us any information. Suddenly there is an announcement on the tannoy system and a hushed silence falls over the crowd as people strain to listen. It’s in French :“If anyone experiences symptoms including a significantly elevated temperature they should report this to a member of staff”. This tannoy announcement is repeated every 15 minutes in the waiting area. Great – swine flu is not high on our list of priorities…

Suddenly a Policeman arrives and I take the opportunity to ask him for information on what’s happening as there is no sign of the boat. His helpful reply? “The Eurostar tunnel is blocked so loads of people are coming here to get a boat.”
NO SHIT SHERLOCK!!!

Then after what seems like hours, buses arrive to take us to the boat. The bus driver explains that she and her colleagues have been working 14 hour shifts to get people into boats. She points to the thick blanket of snow which has been there for days and says that the Port authorities have only decided to clear the snow today making her job marginally easier.


5.30pm
Get onto the boat and suddenly feeling very proud of being British. P&O staff are clearly visible and incredibly organised. They give out information leaflets and point us in the direction of the restaurants. Some people (who hadn’t packed food for their journey) had not eaten for about 5 hours.
8.30pm
Arrive in Dover. Cannot fault the P&O staff who get the Eurostar passengers into awaiting buses to take us to Customs. Communication flows and I’m almost tempted to kiss the ground as I step into the UK.
Unfortunately, this is where the pride ends. Buses arranged to take the Eurostar passengers to the train stations suddenly cease. We are forced to walk 45 minutes in the snow to Dover Priory station or miss the high speed train to London.

10pm - midnight
Manage to scramble onto the high speed train. 30 minutes in to our journey it grinds to a halt and then starts moving at a slow crawl. Our driver announces the reason:
“Sorry for this delay to the high speed service. We are currently moving slowly because we’re stuck behind a Eurostar train that’s broken down….”

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photo by: Sweetski