Monday, 25 June 2007

First Class Service

This should come as a warning to all those who believe that first class is always classier. Even though a first class booking on the Eurostar was barely more expensive than the bog-standard, perhaps because of the last-come first-screwed theory that operates in the internal market. Given that eurostar themselves don't deal too kindly with complaints (the eurotunnel went up in flames, causing six hour delays and the ambiance of a refugee camp in the departures hall, and I still didn't get reimbursed) I have decided to share my experience with the commuting public online.

In the twentyfirst century luxury is within reach of the multitude. Smoked salmon, champagne, and truffles are widely available in every branch of Sainsbury's. A 'trip of a lifetime' to Mauritius is now embarked on yearly by increasing hordes of Yuppie families, regardless of dire climate change predictions. And even students I know now upgrade to first class on the train. Deciding to get on this bandwagon at long last, I paid my 95 euros (one way) and waited expectantly for my first taste of cross-channel luxury. Certainly, I did not expect things to go less smoothly than in cattle class.

And yet.

I turned up 35minutes prior to departure, quite unhurried. This is a TRAIN after all, and in Belgium 10 minutes is normally enough to get you through security and passport control and into your carriage with a cup of coffee. On the English side of the Manche, however, things happen rather differently.

I arrived to find a chain of Chinese tourists sneaking across the concourse and up the stairs and tried to circumnavigate them by presenting my first class ticket at the 'business premier' check-in where noone was waiting. I was rudely rebuffed. I think it was the sandals...Back in the crush, I tried to follow some Chinese through to security but was told I had to stand back and wait. Finally, i was instructed to use a different machine which promptly ate my ticket and refused to give it back. Four other ticket machines joined in the general strike and pandemonium ensued on the platform. There were now 10 minutes to go until departure.

Gesturing to one of the flustered staff members, who was physically holding back a wave of agitated customers from entering the inner sanctum, I explained the situation. With a look of undisguised malevolence she said that someone would deal with me in due course - even though count-down was fast progressing. When she eventually released the ticket it turned out to be the portion from Brussels to London which, in the crush, I had mistakenly put in.

I was in the process of producing the right ticket when I saw another security guard making off with my suitcase. This had clearly been labelled a terrorist threat, situated, as it was, 2 metres from my person. After fending off the controled explosion of my possessions I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way to the xray. Never having had ANY problems with security on previous countless trips I was not prepared for the next stage of my first class treatment.

With time ticking by the man pulls over my suitcase for inspection and gruffly commands me to open it. I do so and he picks his way through the contents of my toilet bag VERY VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y. After five excruciating minutes I hear the final call for my train. By this time he has put the suitcase through the xray a second time and is talking jovially to the security woman at the screen. I indicate my watch with growing alarm and he drags himself over."Is there a problem?" I said. "My train is leaving NOW". You should have got here earlier, he snapped. "But what's the problem?" I continued, "My ticket is non flexible and non refundable". "That's your problem"' he replies, and proceeds to run some gadget over the WHEELS of all things, before putting the suitcase through the machine AGAIN, just for good measure.

Finally, he gives me the all clear. Cursing under my breath, I take over the operation myself and shove my possessions in left, right and centre, and ask whether I can be spirited to the front of the passport queue. A request he pretends to ignore until I kick up such a fuss that another guard volunteers to bring me through.

I make it onto the train with twenty seconds to spare but only get as far as coach one out of eleven. Dragging my suitcase across children's toys, elderly body parts and fat midriffs endears me to no-one in the carriage so I abandon it in Voiture 2 and make my way up the train. Passing the buffet car I am arrested in my tracks by two burly employees who ask me where the h*ll I think I'm going. When I mention coach eleven they look suspicious and demand to see my ticket and ID. Having already gone through security about a million times I can't quite see the point of this interrogation and am really feeling like a wanted criminal. Happily, their suspicions about my vagabond status remain unfounded and they let me through. I resolve to wear a business suit the next time to avoid a repeat scenario.

Eventually I find my seat. It was nice enough. I had a glass of champers, and read my book. But I couldn't help thinking that treatment was more fifth than first class.


Pussilla says... said...

Heavens! I hope you drowned yourself in a champagne bottle in voiture 11. This sounds like a Sunday trip no?

Michael said...

Well, you may complain about Belgian bureaucracy... but at least leaving the country is not a hassle. Once with a group of friends, taking a pick nick on board the Eurostar... the knife had cut through the bag and was half hanging out of it. And not one single Belgian security guard took notice. One of us saw it on board, when putting the bag away. I'm happy this did not happen on the UK side, though....