Tuesday 14 August 2018

#TravelTuesday I thought Thameslink was bad until I used SNCF!

It may surprise you to learn that I rather enjoy travelling by train. The years of ineptitude by Thameslink have not dimmed this. It is generally my preferred method of travel, when it is a practical option. You can have a drink, you can wander around and around London it is invariably quicker to get in, apart from in the middle of the night. You can read a book or the papers and watch the world go by. As a Manchester City fan living in London, I regularly use the Virgin service from Euston to Manchester and it has been fine. As my wife was at Manchester University, I used to travel up more or less every week to see her on British Rail. I'd take the 16:59 up on Friday and the 06:24 back, which could be done cheaply on a weekend supersaver return. I'd read a book on the way up and sleep on the way back (as would most people). I don't recall having any problems. I'd be in work in Windmill Street by 9.30am.

Thameslink has been a different story. It is definately worse than British Rail, there are no contingency plans for when it goes wrong. When one train is cancelled, they often make sure the next one doesn't stop at your station. If I have the option, I will just go to the pub till it sorts itself out, if it is an evening. If it is a morning, a trip to Burnt Oak is the sensible option and the Northern Line.

Regular readers will know that most years, in the summer I volunteer with HCPT, a charity that takes a group of people with disabilities to Lourdes in France. This year, a friend was getting married on the Saturday, but the group departed on a Friday. I wanted to join the group on the Sunday. The flight options were not feasable and hugely expensive. I thought I'd check out the train. This seemed doable.

I paid 200 Euros for the following journey

11:31 London St-Pancras
14:47 Paris Gare du Nord

Passenger: Roger

Carriage 6, seat 31

15:48 Paris Montparnasse TGV 8591
20:39 Lourdes

Passenger: Roger

Carriage 6, seat 107
London → Lourdes - Sunday, 29 July 2018 €200.00
As you can see, this allowed just over  an hour to connect. I booked the ticket. I then checked how long the connection would take. I was disturbed to see that it was 40 minutes and was worried that this was cutting it a bit fine.

On the day, I turned up and boarded Eurostar with plenty of time to spare. I had breakfast in the station with the Mrs, then she bade me Au Revoir and I boarded the train.

The first wrinkle was that the train departed rather late, nearly 15 minutes after it was scheduled. I started to worry about making my connection. I pinged my wife. She pinged me back a rather worrying message. "Check your emails, there's one from SNCF".

So I did. I was horrified to read it.

Dear customer,

Regarding your travel booking with SNCF on 29/07/2018 on train 8591 from PARIS MONT 1 ET 2 to LOURDES.

We regret to inform you that your train has been cancelled due to production problems.

Find out details about how our services are running on:
  • SNCF.com website under the timetables and live traffic updates section
  • SNCF mobile app
  • By calling +33 892 35 35 35 (cost of international call + fees of your phone operator) or at your original selling point

If you've already changed or cancelled your booking, please disregard this message.

Thank you for your understanding

So I would be turning up in Paris with no connecting train. At least it solved the problem of the connections. On emerging from the tunnel another problem became apparent. This was a very 21st century problem. A subsequent email from Sky Mobile explained
We're really sorry that you may be experiencing problems trying to use your Sky Mobile service if you're abroad at the moment.
There's a technical problem with the roaming network and we are working very hard to get this fixed as soon as possible.
We'll let you know when it’s back up and running.
To say sorry, we'll be adding 1GB of data into your Sky Piggybank within the next week.
If you can connect to local Wi-Fi you'll be able to continue using services such as email, WhatsApp, iMessage and Skype.
So I coundn't ring anyone to sort anything. As there was wifi on the train, I spoke to the Mrs, who had spoken to SNCF and they said "Go to information at Gare Du Nord and they will sort it out". I also spoke to the conductor who said "There are power supply problems at MontParnesse, but ther is a train at 17:48 that gets in at 22:38.".

On arrival, I went to Information at Gare Di Nord. I've never had a worse customer experience. I was simply waved away. You would expect an international terminal to have some sort of ability to help but no. I was now totally flummoxed. I decided to go to Montparnasse, and see if they were more helpful. I took  a 30 minute trip across Paris. As the Eurostar had been 25 minutes late into Paris, it is debatable whether I'd have made the train. As it was, I then had to take a ticket and queue for 25 minutes to get help. Lord help me if my train had actually been going shortly. Eventually I was seen and was told that the train was actually going from Gare D'Austerlitz. I was told that I could not reserve a seat and may have to stand for five hours, I was advised that as the train was busy, I could travel the following day, if I preferred. This was not an option. I was advised to get a bus. I opted for a cab. On arrival at Austerlitz, it was chaos. The station is being rebuilt and the information system comprised of one screen. As I had time to spare I grabbed a beer. I thought I'd have a meal on the train. I'd been lead to believe the food was OK on SNCF trains.

As the departure time approached, I was disturbed to see that there was no platform displayed. In broken French, I asked "Excuse Moi, ou est le train pour Tarbes?". The SNCF official sneered at me like an imbecile and pointed at the screen. About 15 minutes after the scheduled time, an announcement had the words Tarbes and Quatorze in it. I made a mad dash for the train. My plan was to sit in the seat I'd been allocated on the previous service and play dumb. This worked. Eentually the train left 30 minutes late. I texted my friends in Lourdes who were collecting me.

At around 8pm, I decided to try and get some food and a beer. On arrival at the buffet, I was informed that it was shut and given a bottle of water. That was that. On th train, no one checked tickets. My French isn't great but there was no real attempt to apologise for the late running, other than operational reasons.

I've never travelled on SNCF or a TGV train previously. I had been anticipating a blog saying how clean, efficient and punctual it was and how Thameslink might learn something. As it turned out, there was no apologies, no attempt to help, no food, no hot drinks and the most appalling customer service I've had in years. At least with Thameslink if you are delayed by over two and a half hours, you get some sort of refund.

You will be pleased to know that my friends were there to collect. They'd saved me some dinner and I had a very pleasant couple of beers. Would I go by SNCF again? Not if I can help it. I've no idea if SNCF have a customer relations team, but if they do, I hope they read this and recognise that they have failed miserably. I am an experienced traveller and have enough French to get by. Lord help anyone who doesn't.

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