The curse of the east coast mainline strikes again
Taking the train between Edinburgh Waverley and London King's Cross has been one of my favourite journeys since my first trip in the late 1970s. The train was always quiet until we reached Newcastle. I would order the onboard British Rail full English breakfast in the 'dining car' and eat heartily as we hurried down south on the renowned Intercity 125 (the last time British trains were at the forefront of anything).
The journey was almost certainly not as Romantic as I remember. But the breakfast was fabby. The cliff top views over the North Sea were frequently dramatic. And you reached London in less than five hours, ready for a day's work before the last train home.
Today's journey with LNER (London and North East Railway) would be quicker, busier and there would be no dining car. It's an altogether more functional trip. So we took a pre-departure breakfast in the (almost) inaccessible Ibis: tattie scones, baked beans and tea for me, croissant and coffee for Spike.
It flagged through our food beginning and end of our day's travel . Scottish and French. Edinburgh to Paris.
We had seats booked on the 9:30 a.m. from Waverley. Then the 4:22 p.m. Eurostar from St. Pancras (literally across the road from King's Cross). We would arrive at Gare du Nord by eight o'clock French time. It's a two station journey to our hotel not far from Gare de Lyon from where (in two days) we catch the early morning train to Rome.
We'd left two and a half hours between our arrival and departure times in London. The stations are on opposite sides of the street -- Pancras Road, if you must know.
What could go wrong?
The onboard free Wifi provided by LNER is welcome but intermittent. There are hotspots and not so hot spots.
Around 20 minutes after leaving York station we re-joined the Internet. We were about two hours from London when I read this email from Eurostar.
Unfortunately, your train has been cancelled - Malheureusement, votre train a été annulé
We’re sorry to let you know that your train 9040 on Sunday 05 June from London St Pancras Int'l to Paris Gare du Nord has been cancelled due to a problem with the overhead power supply near Paris.
You can either:
exchange your booking to travel on a different day for free by going to Manage Your Booking at eurostar.com or by contacting the person or company you bought your ticket from.
or cancel your booking and get a full refund. If you bought your tickets directly from us, please complete this online form using the category ‘Delays and cancellations’ at eurostar.com. Otherwise, please contact the person or company you bought your ticket from.
Please exchange your ticket or ask for a refund as soon as possible.
We’re sorry for the inconvenience caused but hope this advance warning gives you enough time to rearrange your travel plans.
The Eurostar team
So. That was unexpected.
If I'm honest -- those are not the exact words I used.
By the time we arrived at St. Pancras International the Ticket Hall and (as we saw later) the Departure Hall (on the other side of Customs and Border Control) looked like a very British version of Dante's First Circle of Hell. That's "Limbo" -- in case you don't know -- in which the unbaptised and virtuous pagans reside forever.
It's not their fault, therefore they do not descend deeper into Hell.
Lots of people had clearly been waiting without information or answers for a long time. That, I suppose, is part of what Limbo is all about. So, "Hell mend them," as we sometimes say in Scotland. But we mean that as a metaphor. Not a remedy for unfortunate travellers waiting for news about cancelled trains to Europe.
By now the atmosphere in both large Eurostar Halls -- packed to the gills with frustrated travellers -- was palpable. The temperature was rising physically and metaphorically. It would not be long, I thought, before all Seven Circles of Dante's Inferno might erupt in front of our anxious eyes.
We were about to join the endless, snaking queue of other virtuous pagans (Spike and I are both baptised -- separately) when a Eurostar person clocked me in my wheelchair.
"What train are you booked on, sir?" asked our Guardian Angel.
"The 4:20 to Paris," I replied.
"Please come this way," the woman said, indicating a Eurostar cubicle where no one queued.
Who was I -- virtuous pagan that I am -- to argue? No one. So we went the way shown by the Vision before us.
After checking our tickets, the Eurostar employee in the cubicle with no queue said that the wheelchair space on the 15:15 was not reserved so she had booked me and my companion onto that train, scheduled to leave an hour or so before our own train -- now cancelled of course. The only difficulty was that the storm north of Paris that had brought down the power lines was still causing significant disruption to schedules. The woman could not be certain when we would be departing.
I took in all of what was said. The word that stuck itself mostly in my brain, however, was "departing". Almost no one else among the hundreds of people queuing (thousands maybe) had heard the word depart in many hours.
This may be one of the very few occasions on which my wheelchair became a public transport nightmare perk. I cannot tell a lie. I took the unexpected gift with thanks.
We spent the next three hours in the Business Executive lounge (another Eruostar bonus for wheelchair users) drinking hot chocolate and iced fruit tea, munching on nibbles. We were escorted to the almost empty platform to board the train first and an hour or so later -- four hours later than scheduled -- we dined onboard as we sped through north east France en route to Paris.
We arrived late, of course. But we arrived. And I have nothing but gratitude to Eurostar and its staff. Our day could have been so much worse.
We crossed Paris by the RER. Finding the assistance team took longer than anticipated. We were in the right location but on the wrong level. But once we found the team the journey underground to Gare de Lyon was smooth and easy.
We arrived at our hotel -- an Ibis Styles I remembered with some trepidation after Edinburgh. It was a pleasant stroll from Gare de Lyon through late night, gentle rain.
Paris -- in late spring -- on a warm evening -- in light rain -- is about as good as a wander in a big foreign city could ever be.
As we turned a corner I saw the illuminated sign of the Ibis Styles brand. I could sense Difficult Dougie waking up inside my head.
He said silently to no one but me, something like, "if these guys have a goods lift to get in, I'm going Ape Shit."
But that was not necessary. And the truth is, it's seldom helpful.
We both looked at the entrance and relaxed. Level.
Spike pushed the late night entry intercom. Shortly, a helpful French man appeared to let us in. We registered. He showed us the door to our ground floor room. He assisted with our bags and showed Spike where we could help ourselves to a late night hot drink.
We were tired, relieved and happy. And inside the room, Spike passed judgement on our long day and the bed in which we'd sleep for the next two nights.