Eurostar's decision to cancel its direct service to the slopes next winter has left skiers without their much-loved eco-friendly alternative to flying
You couldn’t make it up. In a year where the world seems to have turned upside down in the wake of a global pandemic, the prospect of a direct, scenic journey from the UK to the ski slopes of France this winter was keenly awaited by skiers – the relief many of us have been longing for during lockdown.
But yesterday Eurostar snuffed that out, abruptly cancelling its iconic direct ski train service for this winter – it’s the worst thing that could happen to ski holidays right now.
The company stated that it wants to focus on “high demand” routes – Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam – blaming the challenging conditions and new rules enforced on them due to the Covid pandemic. I guess it beats the old British Rail excuse of “leaves on the line.”
This is a massive blow to the thousands of loyal ski train fans who have come to realise that a journey by rail knocks the socks off flying or driving to the slopes. I’m one of them.
The ski train is so simple: you get on at London or Ashford and get off around 800km later in Moutiers, Aime la Plagne or Bourg St Maurice, minutes by bus or taxi from an array of 16 tantalising top-notch ski resorts. It’s a no brainer: once track, never back to flying – as us keen ski-train passengers say.
Don’t just take my word for it, children absolutely love it too. Time melts away with games, scribbled drawings, books and eyes glued to the ever-changing vista out the window. I remember a seven-year-old once proudly telling me how she’d made new friends with other kids on the way.
Admittedly, the overnight service is less comfortable, as you have to squirm your way to sleep on the same sit-up seats used in the daytime service, with overbright, overhead lighting and complimentary eye masks that aren’t fit for purpose. But for the keen skier or snowboarder, the benefit of two extra days (what you gain over those that fly) spent carving the slopes is well worth a less-than-perfect sleep.
Whether you travel by day or night, you also arrive smug in the knowledge that you have saved 80 per cent of the carbon emissions, compared to the same journey by plane.
Like many skiers and snowboarders, my first ski holidays began under the illusion that the slopes were just a short hop away. With a 90-minute flight from the UK, how could they not be? But the journey by plane turns out to take all day, as you shuffle through airport queues onto cramped flights and then load yourself onto a long transfer that frequently ends up crawling in traffic – that’s all in the pre-Covid world, what the future will hold, who knows.
The Tarentaise is home to some of the Alps’ finest ski resorts, including Les Arcs, Tignes, La Plagne, Méribel and Val d'Isère. However, they are located a relatively long way from the closest main airport, Geneva. No wonder the ski train is popular, as it promises to drop passengers a hop-skip-and-a-snowplough away from their accommodation. Need more proof of its popularity? At half term the entire train sells out within four hours of tickets going on sale. The only things flying are the tickets.
The train is in such demand that Eurostar could put spikes on the seats and drape snakes from the fittings and skiers would still book, eager we are to return to the slopes by the most carbon-friendly means. If catering in a post-Covid world is a challenge, as Eurostar claims, people can bring their own food and drink on board – they’ve been doing it for years anyway.
Skiers and snowboarders are gutted by the cancellation. Ski resort tourist offices are baffled. The influx of 24,000 skiers in a smooth, sustainable manner, has been wiped out by a decision made by Eurostar head office after consulting, well it seems, precisely nobody in the ski industry.
With a monopoly on the HS1 channel tunnel, the umbilical cord of steel that connects the UK to mainland Europe, sustainable travel to Europe and Alpine ski slopes is at the mercy of decisions taken at Eurostar head office at St Pancras – this one has got to be their most shocking yet.
There are, of course, plenty of indirect routes to the Alps, such as by Eurostar to Paris and TGV trains to the Alps. Don’t get me wrong: these are wonderful journeys, which I’ve done many times too. But most of these routes to the French Alps require a change of station in Paris, from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, a change that you can do by taxi to avoid hauling your luggage across the Paris Metro.
That’s not nearly as easy as a direct train. Nor is it as easy to find out what your options are or book these indirect journeys – a shambles that the entire rail industry is to blame for, and needs sorting out pronto, especially now.
Make no mistake, ski train or no ski train, I would urge you to embrace rail travel to the Alps. The experience is better than flying or driving, pandemic or no pandemic.
But nothing will compensate for the loss of the ski train and we must fight to save it – there is still time for Eurostar to change its mind before the snow starts falling.
Daniel Elkan is a freelance ski journalist and founder of snowcarbon.co.uk, and independent guide to rail travel to the Alps. His petition ‘Save the Ski Train’ is now live, in partnership with eco-charity Protect Our Winters, SaveOurSnow, and pro-train travel campaign Ski Flight Free. It calls for Eurostar to revoke its decision to cancel the ski train to the Alps next winter.