Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Frustrations of Eurostar


'scuse finger
For the past 6 years I have traveled with my bicycle by Eurostar and SNCF to various parts of France to do the Etape du Tour.  This year I booked the TGV to Annecy and then set about booking the Eurostar tickets.  Quite by chance I came across a 'tweet' indicating that the Eurostar policy on packed bicycles had changed and I saw this confirmed when I searched the Eurostar site.  I had a long conversation with Eurostar  None of their suggestions were any use to me.  I could not take the bicycle unpacked as it needed to be packed for the TGV.  I could not turn up with it packed as there was no guarantee it would appear in Paris for up to 24 hours after I did, when I had a train connection in Paris.  The only thing I might have done is sent it ahead but that would have required a special trip from Berkshire to St Pancras ahead of travel and a special trip back to St Pancras to collect it after my return.  Extra charges were of course involved for all these options.  In frustration and against every instinct in my fibre I gave up and booked a flight from Heathrow to Paris (packed bike conveyed at no extra cost).  I did look at the possibility of train/ferry but ruled it out on grounds of time and cost.

It is interesting that when I first used Eurostar they used to cheerfully place my packed bike in the baggage carriage.  More recently it appeared to be too much trouble for some train guards to open the baggage carriage and more recently still I had been told to dump it in the buffet car.  I believe there are two baggage cars on each train which no doubt go at least half empty.

Throughout France on very similar trains there is no problem turning up and taking a boxed bike at no additional charge or hassle.  Eurostar are not (quite) alone.  I had planned to take my bicycle this year to Venice for the Grand Fondo Sportful.  However in response to my enquiries I was informed curtly that the sleeper from Paris to Venice does not take bicycles.  Again I had to pass my custom rather reluctantly to British Airways.

27 comments:

  1. I identify with your annoyance Martin. I have been travelling through France for years using a bike with wheels off in a soft bike bag. This takes up no more room than a large suitcase and so goes in the luggage rack on TGVs and Eurostar – or did until this ruling changed.

    The only other way is to send it in advance, with the risk of damage from porters (it is in a SOFT bag).

    Alternatively, you can take the touring cyclist option, load a touring bike up with panniers and use those trains which have a luggage van which will take you on the same train as the bike. You CAN do this on Eurostar, but not TGV – you have to select other trains.

    Of course, if you want to use a lightweight bike with no pannier space, and can’t get all your kit into a rucksack, then you are screwed. Only other option apart from flight (with bike in a HARD bag) is to go on one of the package tours like Sporting tours who take you and bike in a coach.

    A big nuisance.


    - Bob Davis

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  2. Hi Martin!
    I identify with your frustration too! Since January, I have taken the Eurostar daily with a foldable Brompton bike to go from my home in Brussels to my job in Lille (35 min by Eurostar). The company progressively added restrictions:
    - January 2013: obligation to pass the folded bike through the scanner (1 meter high). Until then it was ok to pass it unfolded through the security arch.
    Eva
    - May 2013: obligation to put the folded bikes in a bag as from the terminal entrance. The regulation published on the Eurostar website only indicates the bags are obligatory on board.
    I have written to Eurostar and they replied that things are actually quite easy for foldable bikes, as we are "allowed" to bring them as luggage (a folded Bromton bike equals a small suitcase)

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  3. It is daft that a train with plenty of space, and no weight restrictions, cannot carry bicycles, when an aeroplane with restrictions on space and weight can quite easily.

    I can only conclude that they already have enough passengers to make a healthy profit, and don't really care if a few switch to flying. While the planes need to be full to make any money, perhaps?

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  4. I think Fonant is right here. Time was: if the luggage section got too full you could put a bike bag on an empty seat.

    Now there unlikely to be empty seats.

    My point to Eurostar/TGV would be that a suitcase and bike bag (or right size which can fit in luggae compartment) would be no worse than having 2 suitcases. Are they going to restrict people to one suitcase?

    Bob Davis

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  5. Hullo Martin,
    It’s good to know that you’ve publicised this to a wider audience. I became aware of the policy of size restriction from 120cm to the now 70cm (from memory) on Eurostar in January.
    I used the service last June (2012) – to Lille and thereafter the TGV down to Valence. My bag was stripped down in a Cinelli bike bag. All went like clockwork – perfect. On the Eurostar I stored my bagged bike on the racks that are next to the entrance doors to the carriages – with room to spare.
    Like you I have now been forced to change my travel plans for this year due to this policy. It can only be about one thing – money. All the “it’s been changed... for the safety and convenience of our customers” is just the usual corporate bullshit used as an instant retort so as to inconvenience paying travellers.

    Three things:
    1. I am going to contact Eurostar stating I am a musician and wanting to carry a cello on the train as hand luggage (I guess it’s over 120cm but within 70cm) if it’s stated that this is fine – then it can be demonstrated cyclists with bagged bike are being discriminated against (you’re the lawyer, am I right?)
    2. I’ve been in CTC many a year, yet I’ve not seen anything from the organisation on this to-date – maybe we can get them to lobby Eurostar to repeal this ridiculous new ruling.
    3. I’ll get my friend in France to make a pretend booking from Lille to St. Pancras (with a bike bagged) and if condition of carriage is accepted all OK – then we shall have demonstrated that Eurostar are applying wholly different rules and criteria for different countries and citizens of the EU.

    I think the most galling thing for me is the free advertising I’ve given Eurostar this past year. I’ve done nothing but sing their praise to anyone who’d listen. Now I feel as if I’ve had sand kicked in my face.

    Excellent website/blog Martin – I’ve been following you for a long time. Your tenacity in trying to hold to account and highlight how cyclists are treated like inconvenient dirt by: Govt., the Police, the CPS, Local Authorities and private companies is commendable.

    Gavin Sharp.

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  6. Martin let me fill you in on what has happened, and suggest that you look at the current Eurostar bikes on train page.

    I have been trying to get this sorted since last December but a few things have happened. My initial pressure actually lost me a dialogue with a direct contact and I was shut out to deal through the public affairs desk, but fortunately quite a few railway people use the bike in a bag service too, and negotiations continued, complicated by the fact that the baggage facility on the trains is actually managed by concessions (Eurodespatch, Geoparts, SNCB and SNCF) for the 4 stations where baggage space is loaded and unloaded. Through regular visits or phone calls to the Eurodespatch counter at St Pancras and other sources, some of us were kept aware of the developing state of play.

    Eurostar maintain that the demand for baggage space on their trains means that all passengers will need to be limited to a maximum of 2 large cases measuring 85cm x 85cm, and all larger items will be classed as oversize and need to be checked in at an oversize check in desk, by the main check in. From there for a specially negotiated charge of £10 per bagged bike (other rates apply to suitcases). Eurostar has conceded to permitting the 120 x 90 bike bags on their seasonal routes to Avignon, Provence, and the French Alps, because they do not operate a service for assembled bikes or any registered baggage on those services. Had we not been able to secure this option, then the prospect might well have been just having the 8 bookable spaces for assembled bikes between London and Brussels/Paris. It is not what we would like in the perfect world, and even the website advises that you can generally carry on a 120cm x 90cm bike in a bag for most of the onward high speed rail connections (although some - like RENFE offer this only very specifically for bikes in bags)

    Bearing in mind that this is a revised arrangement which has just been introduced I'd be interested to see if the promise of being able to get any bikes checked in with the passenger on to the same train is deliverable, and based on past experiences of assembled bikes not travelling on a booked service, and late running Eurostar services generally, I and others have experienced, we have suffered no financial penalty for being put on a later train for which we have not booked a ticket, indeed on one occasion I got a free upgrade to a Thalys service to catch up with my connection in Koln.

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  7. I am very aware that the train and station operators have for many years been unaware of the actual and latent demand of combining cycle use with rail travel, in part because cycling is an insidious way of moving people in large numbers without any obvious evidence - save for the times when bikes have to be parked somewhere. Bike in bags is indeed a way that cyclists have adapted to fit the maximum number of bikes on to trains, planes, and coaches to make long distance journeys. When rail services in London were severed (Thameslink 2004-05 Waterloo & City 2006-07) even the regular passengers discovered the convenience, and cycle use for onward travel from St Pancras went up by over 1000% in 2 months - I have the pictures to prove it. A similar effect for Waterloo now sees almost 40% of the peak hour vehicles counted on Blackfriars Bridge being bicycles, and a substantial number of these start or finish their journey at Waterloo.

    But this is just one of the many markets for cycling with rail where a commuter can cut up to 60 minutes from the journey time door to desk, and up to £8000/year from the cost of their commuting. We have at least 2 types of 'leisure' cycling, and several flavours of sports cycling and a wide range of products and prices that can deliver the marriage of cycling with rail travel. Some rail operators, to their great credit have been really good at engaging with their cycling customers and reaping the rewards, other still have that great concern for change - common in the public transport world, where a small change can make or break a company delivering this over millions of journeys per year.

    I've written an awful lot there and it has reminded me that I have to get on with sorting out a similar bikes in bags deal of certainty of carriage on the major long distance coach services (the main operators do accept bagged bikes but at present if they don't fit in the hold with all the other luggage you can get caught out) - huge potential there as there are coach services to places like Galashiels - just along the Tweed from Glentress. Either that or if someone wants back this, a dedicated overnight coach service might even be possible from London to Peebles.

    That last detail is a suitable way to wind up - resources cost money, and somewhere that money needs to be paid. A high speed rail carriage now costs in the region of £2m to buy and that cost plus servicing and refurbishment needs to be amortised over a typical 30 year period. Train operators have a very clear picture of how much each square metre of useable space on a train needs to earn daily to pay the bills. Sometimes some neat design and smart thinking finds space which cannot sensibly be used for seats (as in the proposed IEP carriage design) or where cycles will fit behind the slope of a seat back. At other times we can press for space to be usable outside the times of peak demand.

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  8. We can also gather evidence - whenever I can on a train journey I count the total number of passengers, and total number of bikes, and not the total number of seats. Off-peak on many routes I get a surprisingly consistent 10% of passengers travelling with bikes, on trains with over 50% of the seats empty. With others in CTC I have also done spot counts when waiting for a train at Waterloo or Paddington, with surprising results. Quietly we are building up a clear base of evidence that this is a powerful opportunity, especially for the London cyclists who fill - literally up to 70% of the passengers on some admittedly quieter trains heading out for bike rides on Sundays.

    The other key plug, which may even generate enough business to consider providing a modern equivalent to the old guards van is the work by a small but growing band of cycle logistics companies, many providing job opportunities for the young and the very old who would otherwise have problems finding work, in re creating the unbeatable service of Red Star parcels combining the local efficiency of cycle collection and delivery with rail services which can AVERAGE 100mph between city centres. The Cambridge operator offers a 2 hour service to London, and has a best time of 90 minutes door to door. Cultivated carefully we have a transport offer which can go a lot further than it is just now.

    Tweet me @BCCletts and I'll try to get back to you!



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  9. PS the UK size limits for the 2 suitcases per passenger is 90cm x 70cm - which doesn't even align with the current Eurostar limits. All sounding fine when the whole essence of being a European Community has the aim of driving standardisation for interoperability across all transport modes.

    Perhaps a time to re-read the emasculated (by the Commission) efforts of MEP's to get cycle carriage effectively delivered by the passengers baggage conditions element of the Third Railway Package, and seek a standard accepted bike in bag size which can comfortably be achieved for most cycles, and have it accepted for carrying cycles as luggage on National and International train and coach services.

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  10. Blimey there's a lot here from Dave H.

    Dave, just keeping it to bikes in bags on Eurostar and TGV - is this on or not?

    I am getting confused.

    Best,

    Bob Davis

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  11. Its bikes on Eurostar plus ensuring that we secure a common basic standard so you can travel internationally across trains coaches and any other mode without having to think whether your bagged bike is permitted in one way by one service but entirely differently by another. Because of the complexities of the baggage arrangements there has been a lot of sweated effort in pulling the solution together, and its isn't the ideal one we'd all like to have, but it looks workable, and you can continue to travel with a bagged bike. When you check in for Eurostar the system will identify the bag as outsize, and you will need to pay £10 (€15) and check it in (without going on long trek to a parcels counter) for the van space. On arrival if you act smartly and present the paperwork to the baggage concession staff you should be able to collect your bagged bike from the platform, rather than having to hike off to the parcels counter again.

    If, at £10 a shot (with one individual claiming to use the service at least 20 times per year) Eurostar suddenly find a serious number of passengers with an indication of many more driven away by the messing around there might be a further review of how this facility is delivered.

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  12. Thanks Dave.

    Maybe I'm stupid, but all this faffing seems like I might want to use one of the services with a touring bike and panniers.

    But with a lightweight bike bagged up in soft bag, you are saying I can take it to Lille by Eurostar, it will be taken off by staff and I can get it from them without going to a parcels counter - can I then put it on a TGV, and if so, where?

    Bob Davis

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  13. ubercurmudgeon12 May 2013 at 18:24

    Bike Express (http://www.bike-express.co.uk) might be an alternative for some former Eurostar customers. They run double-decker coaches, with a trailer for all the bikes, from the north-east of England, through London, then down either side of France overnight, throughout the summer. I've used them, and can recommend their service, although never during the peak season, when I expect all seats are filled, making the journey less pleasant (or it would for me.)

    The fact that trains are no longer a suitable method of taking a bicycle beyond Paris is, of course, ludicrous.

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  14. The Guardian has covered the Eurostar bike policy issue: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2013/may/13/eurostar-policy-bike-bags-cyclists?commentpage=1

    Any idea of how to influence this policy to make it more cyclist-friendly?

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  15. Reminds me of the metrolink in manchester, no bikes allowed at all altho AFAIK no other stipulations on luggage. Some people took to taking large daft objects on such as ironing boards to show the stupidity of this ruling.

    None joined up thinking from public transport, nothing new there.

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  16. Hullo Martin,

    This is a follow on from my earlier reply to your issues with Eurostar and bagged bikes that measure less then 120cm in length.

    Here’s the very latest webpage from their PR (bullshit) department re. carriage of bikes.

    http://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/travel-information/travel-preparation/baggage/bikes-on-trains#.UaSuX1LpJJx

    A few points:

    1. Eurostar are demonstrable hypocrites – as they allow you to take a bagged bike on their seasonal service to Avignon.
    2. q.v. 1 – it’s clearly nothing other than an easy way to make money for them – classic R.O-B – Rip-Off Britain as why no charge for Avignon – it’s the same train?
    3. I will be making a formal complaint to the Transport and Cultural Attaches (if they exist) at the French Embassy as well the UK’s Dept. for Transport about Eurostar’s ridiculous rip-off policy.

    Martin – when you find a service that works in this country; and then sing it’s praises – it will then shaft you. QED.

    Gavin Sharp.

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  17. I think it's ridiculous.
    Another thing for Boris Johnson to sort out now doubt.

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  18. I only noticed this change after booking my Eurostar trip for L'Etape. Fortunately I work in London, so I can bring my bike up from Berkshire and take it to St. Pancras a couple of days in advance. Also I can collect it a couple of days after coming back. Very irritating though. Fortunately the TGV's within France have kept their existing policy.

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  19. Well, I only found out about this change when I was turned away at the Gare-du-Nord check-in gates after having already traveled 10 hours from Bourg St Maurice. No need to elaborate on the lack of information and their poor customer service. The worst thing is that I have already booked another trip to Chambery in September. Had I known about this mess, I would have certainly booked a flight to Lyon which, as I have checked today, comes out cheaper and is less strenuous! Anyway, I am going to write to them. By the way, I have found out that they overcharged me for bagged bikes at Gare-du-Nord (E29 insted of E15 advertised!)

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  20. A follow up to my post of 26 June with my √Čtape experience:

    I brought my bike (bagged up) into London a couple of days in advance and then took it up to St Pancras at lunch time. Found the Eurodespatch place quite easily and handed the bike in. I also arranged to book the bike on the same train I was taking back. Took the Eurostar to Paris a couple of days later where I walked round to the luggage place at Gare du Nord where I gave in my receipt and the official showed me the room with about 20 bikes (some bagged, some not) and I pointed mine out and collected it - all straightforward. Fortunately there is an underpass from near there to the RER station, so I didn't need to go back to the main concourse.

    Quick two stops on the RER to Paris Lyon. The TGV to Annecy was (rather unsurprisingly) crammed with bikes making it difficult to move along the carriages and I began to have some sympathy for the train companies wanting to introduce restrictions. In contrast the journey back from Annecy to Paris was not crowded at all and I easily fitted my bike on a luggage rack.

    Again no trouble dropping off the bike at Gare du Nord, but as I knew I had to be there an hour in advance (and I added a bit for any delays in the train from Annecy) I had a longer wait than usual in Paris. At St. Pancras, by the time I had reached the Eurodespatch office, my bike was waiting for me.

    So in summary, a bit of extra hassle needing to either be able to send the bike in advance or to allow extra time, but certainly not enough to put me off still preferring train over plane.

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    Replies
    1. Glad it worked out for you. Whether bringing your bike into St Pancras a couple of days prior to travel is a bit, or a lot, of extra hassle depends largely on where you live and work. For many (a majority?) it is highly inconvenient. I also took the train from Gare de Lyons to Annecy and back but did not find carriage of bikes a problem and that was to the etape du tour.
      It is not anyway a capacity issue as the bikes can be carried for a price as you found out.

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  21. What a shame that Eurostar has gone from a company that would happily take bicycles, musical instruments and other sporting equipment to being the only train company in the whole of Europe (to my knowledge) that feels that it can restrict, charge extra or in many cases prevent many groups of people using this more environmentally friendly service for both their work and leisure activities.

    The unreliable alternatives they offer are both inconvenient and expensive yet they have been allowed a monopoly that leaves many people with no alternative now but to not travel.

    Having been on many an off peak service where there have been less than 10 people in an entire carriage it seems, if nothing else, bad economics to not even allow these larger items at certain off peak times.

    Looking forward to 2014 when there is some healthy competition on this route

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  22. I have used the Geostar luggage transportation service that operates between Gare du Nord and St. Pancras twice (in the France to UK direction). First time, for an unpacked bicycle (about 1-2 years ago), second time packed (two days ago). Although there are no guarantees about when it arrives, in my experience they send the bikes over to the other side straight away and both times bikes have been ready to collect as soon as I have got off the Eurostar.

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  23. Now people can see why during 16 seasons of riding the Pro World Race Tours i hitch !

    Each time i have used Continental Trains , some officious uniformed lout will take issue , perhaps even demand additional payment . Remember being in Milano having consulted with their Railway Police to assist with loading then being kicked off by their colleagues short of Verona because they couldn't or wouldn't consult the number i was able to provide as supplied .

    Passing through from Brussels to Berne on another occasion , the officious german bully , not content with everything being in order , continued sniping until the other passengers got so fed up with him that they threatened to deal with him .

    Eurocoach out of Victoria has been touch & go over the years , " Not allowed " becomes " How much in back pocket "! Paris to UK is somewhat more relaxed with Cycling being a little more recognised .

    When will these " travel services " realise that without taking the BIKE , you would not be making that journey ? But then the employee thinks they have a job for life regardless of how badly they behave and how much inconvenience they cause the long suffering fools that require their services ?

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  24. This is the French way of making simple things complicated for no obvious reason. They do lose costumers, but new customers are taking up the slack - for now.
    I used to take the Constructing and interpreting absolute value about 2 times a week between Paris/Lille/Gent. I also used to do any long distance trans France travel.
    However, for the last 2/3 years, I have not taken a single long distance train and much less booked a ticket after getting fed up with the mounting hassle and cost.

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  25. And last time I complained, in a civil yet annoyed manner, the employee started crying and I was accused of being a bad person.
    Ah, France, where you can't tell anybody that they are doing it badly.
    (I'm French)

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  26. As an update to this, I've had a few experiences of continuing to carry a bike on as hand luggage within the 85cm limit - I can just manage this as my frame is quite small and be removing the forks (not very difficult) it can be reduced to the required size.

    Staff at London are fine with this. But on the occasions I have boarded at Brussels and Paris staff have apparently been unaware that this is permissable and appear to operate a "no bikes other than via the baggage service" policy. It was only after escalating the issue to a senior manager at Paris that I was able to travel with my bike as baggage during a recent journey.

    To be fair I think the policy is now so complicated (depending on the options available for different journeys) that some staff are simply confused. But I think there's also a policy at Paris and Brussels aimed at doing everything to dissuade passengers from travelling with their bikes as luggage. This can in my experience verge on harassment and intimidation.

    For example at Paris recently my bike bag was moved without my knowledge because staff felt it would be better stored elsewhere causing me considerable anxiety when it wasn't where I expected it to be.

    Given all this wouldn't it be simpler for Eurostar to simply offer the baggage service for free? I continue to take my bike on as luggage because it (i) saves me time (ii) isn't any more trouble in terms of packing (iii) means it definitely goes on the same train as me (iv) is free. If that baggage service was free I think it would be defensible for Eurostar to simply say no bikes on as luggage.

    Whatever they decide to do I'm getting to the point where I'm getting pretty fed up with Eurostar and being treated like somebody they'd rather not have on their train. I'll be looking for alternatives. I'm not sure they'd be that concerned to know that.

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