I went to Paris for New Year’s Eve (yeah, get me) and it was really impressive how nice Eurostar is to take, and how weirdly helpful the staff always are. Even more impressive right now, because a lot of things are making their jobs harder and none of it is really their fault.
Eurostar is the international high-speed train service that runs from London (UK) through the Channel Tunnel directly to France, Belgium and soon the Netherlands (an Amsterdam service starts this year). For now, all these countries are in the European Union, which has free movement for all citizens. Until something changes – like one of those countries officially leaving the EU – any citizen of a country with a Eurostar station has the right to travel freely to any other country with a Eurostar station. (This is different than the Schengen zone, which has free movement for all people, citizens or not; the UK is not part of Schengen, and may stop non-EU citizens from entering the UK via the EU if it wants to.)
One of Eurostar’s biggest selling points over low-cost airlines, its main rival, is shorter overall journey times. For example, their Flying vs Eurostar infographic, which shows “city centre to city centre” times: they argue that looking at just the flight time disguises the time and expense of getting to and from the airport, and having to get to the airport much earlier than the advertised flight time. Eurostar, which runs to city centre stations like the Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi, wants to give passengers a “turn up and board” arrival time as close to the scheduled departure time as possible, so that Eurostar feels as much as possible like a ‘normal’ train, where you can run and jump on basically right up until the doors close. For its highest spending passengers, Business Premier and Carte Blanche, Eurostar promotes a pre-departure time of just 10 minutes.
But unlike any other train in the world, in that 10 minutes (or 30 minutes for us plebs), Eurostar passengers have to go through the UK-EU border checks, and have their entry to the destination stop granted by the EU (for trains from London) or the UK (for trains to London). And since last June, when the UK voted to leave the EU, two things are making that 10 minute/30 minute target harder to hit.
First, almost immediately after the referendum, the euro fell a little and the pound fell a lot. This is bringing in lots of tourists from outside Europe, who are visiting while it’s cheaper than it has been in a long time. This means more of Eurostar’s passengers have non-EU passports, and non-EU passports take longer to check than EU passports. When most Eurostar travellers are EU citizens, passport checks go very quickly: all the border guard has to do is flip to the photo page, scan the passport, and hand it back. But for passengers without EU passports, the guard asks more questions: how long they intend to stay, the purpose of their visit, whether they’re working, whether they have a sponsor visa, whether they have a French boyfriend they’re planning to secretly marry and overstay, etc. Instead of a brief ten-second interaction, a conversation may take several minutes, especially if the passenger isn’t fluent in a European language. (Not at all to say that people travelling to places where we don’t speak the language fluently is bad – I think it’s a pretty important part of experiencing the world, if you can – but that in this specific place it has the effect of making the queues longer.)
Second, both the French and the UK Border Agency’s passport checks of non-Europeans have become noticeably more obnoxious and time-consuming, so much that I have to believe it’s an intentional policy. For France, the state of emergency declared after the November 2015 terror attack in Paris has meant more intense (=longer) border checks at every entry point, and for the UK, it really does seem like border guards are professionally encouraged to be offputting and mean. In the ten years I’ve been travelling in and out of the UK, border guards have been, at minimum, brusque, but recently they seem to be actively making border crossing as difficult and unpleasant as possible.
On top of the border checks out of their control, Eurostar also has to make its own security feel pleasant and seamless (and fast!) while being reasonably careful, and deal with being one of very few places where people can physically pass from the EU to the UK without getting on a plane, and everything that means for people in France trying to reach the UK. (I mean, personally I think we should be laying on trains and ferries to bring refugees safely into the UK, but it’s not Eurostar who’s setting the border policies that lead to people risking their lives to try to jump on their trains, or walk on the tracks.)
They’re also great at quietly getting across what is turning out to be a weirdly radical message in 2017: that a good relationship between the UK and Europe is good for everyone; that travel should be pleasant and easy, including travel across national borders; and that it’s nice to spend time in different places, around different people. Their positive, inoffensive “Better Closer” campaign in 2014, with Londoners, Parisians and Belgians talking about their favourite things from the other places, feels like a raging manifesto just two and a half years later.
With basically everything I can think of working against them, every time I take Eurostar it’s a friendly, almost aggressively helpful pleasure. I especially remember a time last year when our regional train from Rouen to Paris was delayed, meaning we were almost definitely going to miss our connection back to London: I remember sprinting through the Gare du Nord waving our stamped tickets, only to be met by a Eurostar guard holding his hands up and laughing (nicely): “It’s all right, you’ve missed it, don’t worry! We’re putting you on the next one right now, you can sit down and have a cup of coffee and we’ll bring the tickets over. Don’t worry.”
If I had to deal with half the stuff they do I’d be storming around like a grumpy thundercloud punching families en route to EuroDisney, but I can’t remember a Eurostar employee ever being anything but cheerfully competent, even when the border control queue is in the hundreds and the train’s just broken down (not that this happens often, their trains are swish). And they’ve just banned the Daily Mail. Sincerely, guys: thanks for keeping it together.