by Jerome a Paris
Sat Apr 17th, 2010 at 09:33:49 AM EST
I was somewhat affected by the ash cloud from Iceland as I was in Bremen (and nearby cities to the North, being Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven, where a good bit of the offshore wind industry is based) with 2 colleagues on Thursday and we were supposed to fly back yesterday morning. Needless to say, our plane was cancelled, and we tried to find other options.
We first ruled out driving back, as it is about 800km through busy parts of Germany or the Benelux countries, and headed for the train station. We managed, without any significant wait, to find a very helpful person at the ticket desk, but quickly discovered that most trains were already closed for reservations. Some of them still allowed tickets to be booked, but without seats reserved. So we managed to cook up an itinerary via Köln and Brussels as, for some reason, 3 seats were found on a Thalys to Paris. I was hoping to get a Thalys to the Roissy airport, as my car was still parked there, but we could not get to Brussels early enough for the train that did have seats. Departure just before 11am, arrival in Paris 8 hours later, with an hour wait in Köln and almost 2 hours in Brussels.
So far so good, and our first pleasant surprise was that we were actually able to sit down in the first leg of the train, to Köln (but the train got crowded a couple of stops later, and people were standing through that train). We could work, and even managed to have lunch in the train, at our seats, and considered ourselves lucky.
But the second leg did not turn out to be so easy, as several hundred people were waiting on the quay to board the next train, which was announced to be 45mn late. Checking the station maps, we positioned ourselves far from the crowd, which was actually not positioned where the train was planned to stop. That was a smart decision, as the rush to get into the (already full) train was quite frantic; we managed to get in, as opposed to about half the people on the quay, and took standing positions in the middle of our wagon.
After a number of minutes, an announcement was made (in German only) saying that the train was too full, and that people who board in Köln had to get down in order for the train to leave the station. Naturally enough, nothing happened; a few minutes later, a new announcement, in a wearier voice, indicated that people without reservations should leave the train. Still nothing, and a new announcement was again made, in a slightly annoyed voice, accompanied by a rather brusque version in English ("the train is full, if you have a reservation, it's good, you can stay, if you don't have a reservation, get off the train, or it won't leave"). No movement. Another announcement, yet more annoyed. No movement, several more announcements, each time more exasperated (I couldn't help thinking the voice told us "who are those rude people who can't follow simple instructions?") and, at some point, also made in French (even more brusque than in English). Still very little movement. After a few more announcements, there was the add-on that people getting off the train could go to the service point. After a few more unsuccessful announcements, another slightly helpful add-on was that people could take local trains to Aachen, then Liège, then Brussels.
A few people trickled out - probably those that had already missed out their connection, or had alternatives. A large fraction of the passengers were people trying to go to London, quite a few with Eurostar tickets, and they obviously had few alternatives to going to Brussels.
Finally, the inevitable happened (after about 1h30 of wait on the quay): the voice announced that people without reservations would be taken out of the train by the police (the English and French versions pleasantly added that "then you will have big problems"...) Some people started going out of the train; we found seats in our wagon (where less than half the seats actually had seat-specific reservations visible) and waited, just in case. We had tickets for that train, but no seat reservations, so the DB guy said "out", and the police gently asked us to leave, like the majority of people in the train. At this point, we would not have made the connection to the Thalys (unless it was delayed) so we did not try to protest that in any way. I have no idea what happened to the train in the end...
We decided to have a go at the car rental agency, where there was surprisingly little wait - for a good reason: the only agency with cars was the one that only allowed you to drop the cars in Germany or the Netherlands... We tried on the internet to scour cars in nearby cities, but no success. Finally, a bit of luck: a guy was waiting on the last car of one of the bigger car rental networks, but hesitating over the price they were charging: 750 euros per day (instead of the usual 75-100 on a normal day). And, in a touch of luck, he was going to France. We immediately offered to share the car and the cost, and he agreed. We signed the papers, paid the car, went back to the train ticket office to have our tickets reimbursed (again, a relatively quick line, a helpful clerk, and a quick and successful resolution) and went to pick up the car.
The drive to Paris was largely uneventful, other than a massive traffic jam near Liège because of (poorly organised) road works; there was unusually heavy traffic for a Friday night towards Paris - and lots of obvious rental cars full of business people (we saw several from Denmark at a stop area, and countless German ones): at least a lot of people seem to have had the good sense of sharing vehicles. Our co-traveller was a very friendly Egyptian physical therapist trying to get to a conference in Barcelona - the organisers were obviously keen to have him as they were driving to Lyons to pick him up there for him to be down there this morning... We left him at Roissy, where I picked up my car - by then, it was 11pm, so we all got home in Paris at midnight.
So, for us, it was a somewhat inconvenient day rather than a major catastrophe, but it's obvious that in such circumstances, money matters. Being able to put up the cash to get an overpriced rental car helps; being able to pay for first class, flexible or otherwise more expensive tickets can help; even if you get reimbursed in the end, the ability to put the money upfront (having liquidity) matters when everybody is trying to grab the same thing. And while airlines seem to have behaved decently, and the train companies seem to be trying to help as much as possible (even if I'm not sure I understand how a train could be considered "too full" and not others), but some like the car rental companies are clearly taking advantage of the situation.