Railfuture has published a Snapshot Survey of Eurostar based on the opinions of passengers over a 12-month period. Railfuture has actively promoted the Eurostar services and the environmentally friendly journey opportunities they have offered. This article comments on some of the results and how the service has changed.
The Channel Tunnel is Britain’s only fixed-link to the European mainland. All traffic through it operates by rail, with lorries and cars, along with their occupants, being transported on wagons. However, many people experience a more pleasant and relaxing journey travelling on Eurostar high-speed services, which have been operating since 1994.
In September 2015 Railfuture published the results of its third survey into Eurostar passengers’ experience. The four-page ‘snapshot survey’ gives a high-level picture of the views from people who completed its detailed questionnaire from July 2014 to June 2015. Other research has been conducted but that is not covered in the report, which features the statue of Sir John Betjeman on its cover. It is quite appropriate as Sir John was actually a Vice President of Railfuture in its early days, precisely because of his efforts to save St Pancras.
Railfuture director Jerry Alderson has made around 100 return Eurostar journeys on business to both Paris and Brussels (where he was a weekly commuter at one stage) since 2000. The rail service has been so attractive that flying was never considered. He has experienced almost every eventuality in that time. Of course, there was a dramatic change in the service when Eurostar moved from Waterloo International to St Pancras International in November 2007 with the trains operating entirely on high-speed routes. Journey times were reduced by around 40 minutes and the fares did not rise!
So, what’s Eurostar like?
Eurostar holds about 80% of the travel market between London-Paris and a similar share for London-Brussels, so it must be doing something right!
Eurostar was planned prior to the arrival of ‘low-cost’ (but more importantly ‘low price’) airlines. As a result it has had to lower its fares, which were originally quite high, and for many years a standard class single started at £29. In fairness, based on the distance travelled, it is hard to complain about the fares compared to inter-city trains in Britain although a true comparison would be against advance-purchase fares since Eurostar bookings are, like airlines, made on a specific service (although changes are possible with conditions depending on the type of fare paid).
Eurostar uses demand-driven pricing with calculations made using yield-management software to fill as many seats at as possible. However, it doesn’t appear to be as sophisticated as that used by airlines. For example, although it tries to persuade those booking via its web-site to upgrade at the time of booking, unlike airlines it doesn’t e-mail them close to the departure date to offer upgrades. Eurostar seats are always allocated at booking time (hence it cannot sell more seats than exist) and with no check-in process prior to arrival at the station it has no need to communicate with passengers (unless there is disruption). With post-booking upgrades not proactively promoted fare anomalies can arise. When Standard Class seats are selling much faster than Standard Premier (an intermediate class below Business Premier) the latter can sometimes be cheaper. It’s incredible that a few lucky passengers may be sitting in a better carriage (2+1 rather than 2+2 seating) and receive a meal (with alcoholic drinks included) and yet pay less than someone in Standard Class with no freebies (see a screenshot of such a scenario below). It is always worth checking the price in all classes before booking.
Is Eurostar improving or getting worse?
Many passengers commented on the poor state of the interior of the trains. Most people responding to the Railfuture survey (52%) described the rolling stock as “tired and tatty” and that’s definitely the case, even though the 27 ”e300” (Class 373/1) trains it uses are just over 20 years old and have been refurbished once already. They are also old fashioned (having to press a button on the floor in the toilet to get water is so ‘last century’). Some carriages are in need of repairs. On one occasion another passenger had to open the internal carriage door for a passenger returning from the toilet because the door handle had fallen off!
The good news is that its £1 billion fleet of 17 new “e320” (Class 374) Velaro trains (slightly faster at 320 km/h top speed rather than 300 km/h, hence the name) enter service in late 2015. This will allow the older trains to be refurbished, and they will also be used on extended services (to Amsterdam and Cologne).
Passenger expectations are increasing all the time and hopefully the new trains will meet them. For a start they will have proper air-conditioning and there will be Wi-Fi on board for the first time (it is now seen as essential by most passengers – more than 75% of British adults have a smartphone - though not many mentioned Wi-Fi in the survey) with power-points in standard class (the old trains had it only in the premier class carriages, and their functionality is variable to say the least). The current trains have a mixture of UK and continental points; however, the new trains really need to have USB sockets as well. There will also be electronic information screens in every carriage (let’s hope they are high-quality ones like Railjet trains). It is unbelievable that trains didn’t have them when built in the early 1990s as many trains of that era did, and in Britain even cheap trains (such as the ’Pacers’) have had them retrofitted.
It is easy to get the impression that Eurostar has been cutting the quality to keep the fares down. Several respondents said that Eurostar has deteriorated. Hot food in Standard Premium class disappeared more the five years ago, along with the champagne. Several people described the Standard Premier food as “poor.” The frequent traveller scheme changed its rules making it difficult to reach Carte Blanche status without paying high fares. However, the voucher system is easy to use and multiple £20 vouchers can be used on one booking, essentially allowing some journeys to be free. The Eurostar ticket allows free travel on trains in the Brussels area, but a journey anywhere in Belgium now requires a supplement (see booking screenshot below) whereas previously it was free.
Like many continental trains there were small litter bins attached to the wall beside each row of seats but these have now all been removed and the only bins are those in the toilets and the buffet car. This has been done solely to reduce cleaning costs (and presumably turnaround time at the stations). The new trains will, apparently, have bins in the vestibules of every carriage.
Many passengers commented on the poor facilities at Paris Gare du Nord. Railfuture understands that improvements are due to completed by Summer 2016.
It is hard to understand why the Eurostar terminal at Brussels is so badly managed. They do not allow anyone to check-in until the previous train has left, presumably to prevent someone getting on the wrong train. However, that rule is not applied at St Pancras, where potential confusion is worse because trains to Paris and Brussels often leave at similar times from opposite sides of the same island platform. At Brussels there is the silly scenario of the entire team of staff (including border patrol, security and café area) twiddling their thumbs for ten minutes, whilst the passengers queue up and get bored. It also leads to the loss of sales income as there's only time for one drink.
St Pancras station is a magnificent station. The interior was drastically remodelled so that it could house international trains, but it is fit for purpose? Transport commentator, and Railfuture President, Christian Wolmar thinks not. He often complains about the wasted space upstairs and that arriving passengers are funnelled downstairs just to make life easier for the immigration staff. Is the tail wagging the dog here?
Fortunately 'never again' experiences have been far and few between. Despite train services being halted or thinned out when problems occur inside the Tunnel or on the route – and the hugely negative media exposure suffered by Eurostar - air travel seems to suffer more and with greater delays.
One annoying experience involved collecting the ticket at the station and forgetting to bring the actual credit card used to purchase the ticket. The staff refused to accept proof from the booking confirmation, other credit/debit cards with the same name or passport photo id. A new ticket had to be purchased at full price. The ticket collection functions on machines at British stations sometimes impose the same unreasonable restriction too.
In the survey a significant minority saw the length of time to clear security as a disincentive to travel.
Passengers are concerned about arriving too late for their Eurostar train (arriving at the check-in desk 30 minutes before departure is required for Standard Class) and then having to pay an expensive fare to take a later train. Eurostar staff are often very flexible about this. Having been delayed by rail disruption on the way to St Pancras and trespass closing the Metro on the way to Brussels Mid station, travel was allowed on the next train without any fuss. However, it is best to be safe and purchase a special CIV ticket that guarantees use of a later train at no extra cost if disruption has occurred. Most people do not know about these, and even the rail staff lack training too.
The CIV tickets are sometimes cheaper – the “high-saver” may give peak-time travel at off-peak prices – and allow return journeys within two months rather than the usual one month. However, they can only be sold to passengers travelling on Eurostar (and some other special services, such as ferries). A further complication is that some tickets can only be sold by Eurostar itself, not at stations, though some station staff sell them anyway!
Like air travellers, many Eurostar passengers store their train ticket on their mobile phone, which is fine as it the check-in barriers will scan it and allow access. There is no need to ever print out a ticket. However, at one railway station (King’s Lynn, operated by Govia Thameslink Railway) they would only accept a (print-at-home) paper ticket as proof, and flatly refused to even look at the mobile phone ticket (even though the ticket being requested was exactly the same price as the Anytime Day single). Later that day at another station (Ely, operated by Greater Anglia) there was no problem. The paper-only rule makes no sense. The staff never take a copy of the ticket (just as they never take a copy of a railcard) and never mark the ticket (even if they did, to prevent re-use, most passenger have print-at-home tickets and could print many copies).
A few people complained about the "poor English" spoken by some staff. This was surprising as the on-board staff are normally excellent. Some can be incredibly friendly, and rather generous with the free (admittedly small) bottles of wine!
Eurostar is wonderful when everything goes well, and the future investment, with better rolling stock and more destinations, is going to make it even better. It is definitely something to try.
In March 2008 Railfuture issued a report based on a snapshot survey of customers' experiences during a three-month period. We then carried out a survey of journeys over a four-month period between June and September 2011. The third survey was conducted over 12 months, with the questionnaire distributed with “Railwatch” magazine (and distributed by some local rail users associations) and posted on the Railfuture website.
The concourse leading to the Eurostar check-in is spacious most of the time (hence the slightly blurred images of people whizzing past) but when serious disruption occurs the queues can continue out onto the adjacent street.
Passengers waiting at St Pancras International for their Eurostar train to depart can make use of Wi-Fi, which is free for 30 minutes. This should be long enough. A large banner at St Pancras advertises this faclility.
At St Pancras the trains are diagrammed to ensure that passengers to do arrive and depart at the same time from the same island platforms. Passengers have to walk past the walkway that departing passengers would use.
Most passengers arriving at St Pancras (as well as Paris Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi) have a long walk to leave the stations but it is worse in London because of the border controls and passengers have to go downstairs.
Closing the ‘Lille Loophole’, where passengers buy a ticket to Lille but travel to London, has long been a concern for the UK Border Agency. At Brussels passengers remaining on the European mainland are separated to reduce the queues
Fare madness on Eurostar as the seat in ‘Standard Premier’, which has more space and offers a meal with wine, is a fiver less than Standard Class (£94 versus £99 for standard).
In the past all Eurostar tickets to Brussels allowed travel to any station in Belgium but it now has to be purchased as an add-on for €5.00 for Eurostar standard class, (why are the later trains seem to be €5.50 extra?), €8.00 more for Eurostar standard premier class and €9.00 more for Eurostar business premier class (are they fleecing business travellers?), even though the three tiers are not replicated on Belgian trains. However, these add-ons are still a bargain.
This is the CIV peak-time ticket from Cambridge to St Pancras that King’s Lynn ticket office refused to sell without a paper Eurostar ticket proving eligibility to purchase it. The www.brfares.com web-site, which takes its information from the rail industry’s database, says: “Tickets to London International (London Intl CIV) must be offered to customers holding a ticket from London to a Continental destination via Rail/Sea or from London St. Pancras International for Eurostar.” Note: it does not say “holding a paper ticket”.
News update: Eurostar’s new 16-car e320 trains entered passenger service on 20th November 2015. Only a small number of trains would operate to ‘fine-tune the on-board service’ ahead of the formal launch in mid-December 2015 but it will take until May 2016 before all ten of the first build ordered in 2009 are in service. Unlike the e300s, the new trains will have distributed traction by Railfuture has been assured that passengers will not feel any vibration from the engines.
Read previous articles by this writer: Stansted Experience, Widening the NET, Lacklustre Busway, Expand Eurocity network, Government backs Wi-Fi, Cheapest fares by law?, Bring Back BR?, Public Sector Franchises, Fare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.