Ski resorts by train

More TGV trains on sale, but Eurostar services less certain

Wed 04 November, 2020


Daniel Elkan

On Thursday 5th November 2020, tickets for French trains go on sale for dates from 4th January to 28th March.  Ticket-sale dates from 29th March onwards are yet to be confirmed.

However, there’s something important to know if you are booking journeys to the Alps combining a Eurostar to Paris and then a TGV.

Obviously, this is the most ‘uncertain’ ski season in history because the pandemic just makes everything uncertain.  The resorts are really well prepared, but we there are currently lockdowns in the UK, France and other countries, so nothing is quite certain.

A big question for Brits is of course how to travel to resorts, if and when quarantine restrictions are lifted?

One of the great hopes has been rail travel. Your reliable friend. Sure, Eurostar had cancelled the Ski Train. But there are indirect journeys to reach the Alps, as there always have been.  So far, so good.

However, I recently discovered that Eurostar has adopted an unusual new practice that could cause disruption for travellers.

This is what’s happened so far:  for journeys in October, November and up to 12th December, Eurostar had originally scheduled about six trains per day to Paris and put tickets on sale.  But then, later, it changed its mind and cancelled all the train except two.  The two trains that it has kept on the schedule for that period are the 10:24 and the 12:24 departures from St Pancras to Paris.  

Why was it doing this? Well, with so few people travelling, one assumes Eurostar wanted to save money and consolidate all the people travelling each day onto just two trains, instead of six.  From a short-term financial point of view, at a time of great difficulty for Eurostar, it made sense.

I contacted Eurostar’s press office to ask whether Eurostar planned to continue this policy during the forthcoming winter travel period, i.e. from December 13th onwards into January and February etc.  The answer was, unfortunately, yes.

A Eurostar spokesperson told me:

“The services that we are planning to run are those available on the website for sale. If we make further cancellations due to demand, this would typically be 1-2 weeks before departure, and would be based on the level of demand for a particular train. Any patterns which have been observed would just be down to the level of sales on a particular train.

“On instances where a train is cancelled, passengers are entitled to a refund to allow them to re-arrange their travel, or to a free exchange to allow them to travel on another service that day.

“We appreciate that changing timetables this frequently is a departure from the norm but this is very much an unprecedented situation, which continues to be hard to predict.
“When making changes to the timetable, there are a number of considerations we take into account, and onward connections are of course part of this.”

Alarm bells. This isn’t just unusual from a train company, it’s unprecedented.  Normally, once tickets for a train are put on sale, you know that train is going to run, unless a very specific circumstance causes it to cancel.  But to put a bunch of trains on sale each day, and then later cancel all but two of them, and do this consistently for over two months.  Well that’s not how things are normally done.  Just when we to cling on to some semblance of normality for travel, Eurostar is taking it away.  

Was Eurostar planning to make skiers aware of the risk that it was imposing on their journeys and holidays?  There’s no evidence that it was going to let anyone know this practice was going on.

Eurostar is not in an easy position, financially, due to the ongoing pandemic.  I’m sure there is pressure from shareholders, and all that. But this seems a wrong, and counterproductive way to go about things, undermining trust and ignoring a duty to be honest with travellers.  When you radically start changing the way you operate after 25 years in a way that could cause huge inconvenience, at least let people know.

Nicky Gardner, co-author of the book 'Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, told me: “If travellers plan to leave London to connect in Paris onto onward trains, it’s no consolation to hear a week prior to travel that their entire itinerary has been derailed. Would it not, in these difficult times, be so much better if Eurostar initially opened up sales for trains that it could guarantee to run, or stated which trains are certain?”

The potential continuing cancellations could cause a nightmare for travellers making connections in Paris, for the Alps. Let’s have a look at specific examples.  

Take Saturday 19th December, for example.  Currently, this is the Eurostar schedule, bookable on Eurostar’s website:

Depart St Pancras 07:52, arrive Paris-Nord at 11:17
Depart St Pancras 09:22, arrive Paris-Nord at 12:47
Depart St Pancras 10:24, arrive Paris-Nord at 13:47
Depart St Pancras 12:24, arrive Paris-Nord at 15:47
Depart St Pancras 15:31, arrive Paris-Nord at 18:47
Depart St Pancras 19:01, arrive Paris-Nord at 22:17

For skiers wanting to travel to the Alps on daytime journeys, the most useful departures are the 07:52 and 09:22.  These trains arrive in Paris Gare du Nord in time to switch station and get one of the onward TGVs from Paris Gare de Lyon, arriving at a convenient time in the Alps.  

But if Eurostar cancels these trains and only runs the 10:24 and 12:24, and expect skiers to travel on those instead, it’s a very different story.  Here’s how that pans out, in terms of journey schedules, for a number of the key train stations serving French ski resorts.

Moutiers, Aime-la-Plagne, Landry and Bourg St Maurice stations

Original journey:
Depart St Pancras 07:52 or 9:22 by Eurostar, arrive Paris-Nord at 11:17 or 12:47; depart Paris-Lyon 13:45 by TGV, arrive Moutiers at 17:57, Aime la Plagne 18:18 and Bourg St Maurice at 18:39

Journey if earliest Eurostar departure is 10:24:
Depart St Pancras 10:24 by Eurostar, arrive Paris-Nord at 13:47; depart Paris-Lyon 15:00 by TGV, change Chambery to a TER train, arrive Moutiers at 20:11, Aime la Plagne at 20:28 and Bourg St Maurice at 20:48

What to do?

This doesn’t make for easy choices as to whether to book travel now, or not.

If you book, everything might be fine.  Or it might not. Cancellations could result any of the following:

•    A longer journey with more changes of train
•    A later arrival in resort on your day of travel
•    Additional costs (depending on how your journey had originally been booked)
•    An overnight stay in Paris, if onward TGVs from Paris can’t be reached the same day
•    Seats on the TGV you want to rebook being unavailable

It’s hardly the journey that you signed up for at the time of booking.

Of course, none of these things might happen.  Eurostar might keep the train you’ve booked running, and everything is fine and ticketyboo.

Advice if you are going to book now

1.    Book the whole journey with the same provider, so that the Eurostar and TGV legs count as a ‘connecting journey’ or ‘through-ticket’.   These are rail-industry concepts, rather than exact terms that would be shown on a ticket (so there’s no point trying to look for them on websites when booking).  It just means that what you’ve booked is understood by the ticket seller to be one journey (composed of multiple legs).

2.    Check with the provider about any advice they offer about a situation where Eurostar cancelled the legs. Make sure you have answers to your questions, before you book.

What Eurostar says:

“If someone needed to re-arrange their journey due to a cancellation weeks ahead, they can do this if it’s a through-ticket (this means when they have bought the whole journey as a single, connecting journey but on two different trains).  

“If the tickets were bought separately, then this would be down to travel insurance. This is no different to someone booking separate flights with different airlines. There is nothing that would link these separate bookings.

“We advise travellers to book connecting journeys as a through-ticket directly through Eurostar or an alternative point of sale in order to have protection on their journey. Should a Eurostar be cancelled ahead of the departure, the traveller will be entitled to exchange their journey to another train or date, or to request a refund for the full value of their booking. If they had booked their connecting journey through another operator, then this is down to the traveller to cover the cost or claim from their travel insurance.

“If the cancellation occurs before they depart, then they would need to rebook their Eurostar, and then re-arrange their TGV – under whatever conditions applied to that booking (depending on if they have purchased a flexible ticket, or one that was exchangeable with a fee).”

I also asked ticket-retailer Trainline for a statement.  A Trainline spokesperson said:

“In the case that their Eurostar train is cancelled ahead of departure, we advise our customers to contact our customer service team to exchange their tickets for another journey, or to request a refund for the full value of their booking. Connecting legs of their journey can also be exchanged or refunded, providing they were booked together with the Eurostar leg as one complete journey.”

Mark Smith, founder of rail-guide website Seat61 told me:

"If people are going to travel, they need to have some sort of certainty — some sort of ‘this is what we propose to run if restrictions are imposed’.  It's about making the best of a difficult situation, providing some sort of guidance about what’s going to run in different scenarios.  Otherwise, not only have we got potential quarantine and restrictions, but the timetable uncertainty makes people unwilling to book even in the absence of such restrictions.
"Eurostar choosing to run mid-morning [and lunchtime] services screws up longer distance journeys where earlier departure is necessary, unless people travel the day before.  
"Eurostar is in an impossible situation, where they can’t plan train services because they don’t know whether restrictions will be on or off. The only way I can see round this is if Eurostar guarantees certain trains will run, just as Trenitalia do for Italian strikes, so that travellers with onward connections can book on a guaranteed train.
"Eurostar might give you a refund or voucher if your journey isn’t viable, but what about your hotel accommodation and the places you needed to be? We need to reduce the effect of all this uncertainty. But with the current situation, the solution is simple: don’t decide to go anywhere until three days beforehand."

There's no easy answer to this issue. It's another effect of the uncertain times we are living in.  But with this blog I want to make sure you are as best informed as possible.