fredag 23 november 2007

Eurostar woes

This is a reminder of what the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras looked like in 1960. Five billion pounds have been spent and now the train takes only 2 hours 20 minutes to get from London to Paris. But if you make the journey, you need to allow at least 45 minutes for all the messing around beforehand. This is due to the security arrangements which are still bad in London and even worse at Gare du Nord in Paris.

Passengers and luggage are screened for metal objects. Luggage goes on a conveyor belt through a tunnel with some kind of detector, which is unproblematic. At St Pancras, shallow plastic trays are provided for small objects like mobile phones, keys and cameras, and they go on the conveyor belt too. But nobody has thought about providing tables or shelving where passengers can put their things in the trays before they are screened, and back in their pockets afterwards.

Passengers themselves then walk through a metal detector. If you have anything left in your pocket, it will sound the alarm. You will then be frisked as if you were a criminal who had been caught committing a crime and arrested by the police. Unless you like being touched up by a security guard, this is degrading and embarrassing.

The situation at Gare du Nord is even worse. No boxes for small objects are provided (strange this, because they have them in the station left luggage office downstairs). So you have to take everything out of your pockets and show it to the French customs official. But there is only a tiny space to put all the things on. And I had to go through the metal detector gate five times before I was clear. So there is my stuff, including camera and lenses, balanced precariously on a small area a metre above the concrete floor, while the official pokes around with it. Who pays for my Leica if it drops on the floor, I wonder?

The French customs official with whom I dealt with was particularly stupid and awkward, insisting on opening a factory-sealed box of 35mm films, which is not a good thing to do with films. What did he think was in the box, clearly marked FUJI?

I also had trouble with the ticket, which got jammed and they had to open up the machine to get it out. This is probably because I had folded it, but the tickets are too big to get in a wallet and are likely to get folded.

So I complained to one of the Eurostar crew on the train and was given a telephone number, which I rang next morning. The person I spoke to said she knew exactly what I was talking about, having had the same problem. Presumably, Eurostar's senior managers also have the same experience. Which makes one wonder whether the company has ever heard of Quality Circles, a Japanese invention, where staff at all levels come together to consider ways of improving whatever it is the company produces. Or is the whole affair just taken for granted and regarded as inevitable by all concerned? Or, to put it another way, are their brains in neutral?

The solutions are straightforward. British credit-card style tickets will fit in a wallet without having to be folded, and if necessary they can be provided with a chip with additional information that can be detected by an electronic reader.

As for the security, there really is a need for a sane approach to the problem. The risk needs to be determined and appropriate measures put in place. If the aim is to prevent terrorism, the present arrangements are counter productive, since they force passengers to gather whilst awaiting screening, thereby making them particularly vulnerable to attack. And any serious terrorists would take account of the security measures and adopt tactics which worked round them. I am not going to spell out the possibilities, but they are so numerous that the security measures amount to little more than a charade that inconveniences passengers. There are in any case other targets, presently unguarded, that would be of far more interest to a terrorist.

But assuming that there is a rationale behind the present screening system, then it should at least be organised so that it is less troublesome. There should be a stack of boxes just inside the screening area. The boxes should be big enough to contain people's outdoor clothing ie the same size as household storage containers, about 40 x 50 x 30 high, in assorted colours so that they could be identified. There should be tables or shelves at a convenient height so that people can put their things in the boxes, with trolleys available so that people can take the box, together with their luggage, to the screening machine.

Once screened, passengers would then take their box to another shelf or table and put their outdoor clothes on again, again with trolleys available.

It is shocking that this situation has been allowed to arise, with, seemingly, nobody giving a thought to the procedure to make it run as smoothly as possible.

I have already given up on Eurostar for journeys to northern Europe, as the ferry is cheaper, quicker and more comfortable. Now I am just giving up on Eurostar for trips to France as well until I hear they have sorted themselves out. There is none of this at the smaller ferry terminals, so I will go back to using the boat, which is not all that slower because there is no need to travel up to London and the port is quite close. I do not like being treated like a criminal.

POSTSCRIPT After a couple of months I received a letter from Eurostar expressing their concern and assuring me they are looking into the problem and will try to get it resolved.

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