Things go wrong, but …

July 7, 2014

Today was meant to be a relaxed day, catching up with some papers and email.  I have to be in Paris for one client on Thursday and Bonn for another tomorrow and Wednesday.  So I could have done a couple of day trips but the flights are too short to work and there is all the hassle of security and getting to and from the airport.  Increasingly if I can I use trains and this should have worked well.  The Eurostar to Paris return was in business given the client so I would get around three hours to work.  Then a simple walk across platforms at Paris Nord for the Thalys to Koln and another three hours work, with a final short hop down to Bonn.  I left over an hour in Paris and also made sure I was on the penultimate train so there was a lot of backup in the system.

However it was not enough.   When I got to St Pancreas early for a meeting the queues were stretching way back with no obvious reason.   I was in business so I could skip those and settled in the lounge.  Before entering we were told that two trains were cancelled, but ours would run.  We boarded late but still well within margins and set off.  At Ashford we were finally told that we would be delayed at least an hour as one of the car transports had broken down earlier (the picture is of people being evacuated) and the Eurostar slots for the Chunnel were restricted in consequence.   Suffice it to say that we were over two hours late into Paris but still 15 minutes before the last Thalys so all I needed was to find someone who could move by booking (putting a sticky label on my ticket with an official stamp) and everything would be OK.

However it was not that simple.  It took half an hour of queuing at the Thayls office labeled in three languages as handling changes to tickets to be told that my type of ticket could not be changed and I had to go elsewhere.  I did and it took five minutes but of course by then the last train had gone.   Net result at 0601 train tomorrow and a grotty hotel near Paris Nord (that I had to sort for myself) in which I had a choice between opening the window and suffering the incessant noise of central paris, or closing the window and suffering the appalling smell of damp and, well I'm not sure what else and I really don't want to speculate.

It could have been simple if only there had been some anticipatory actions.  I made a lot of similar points earlier this year when I was stranded in Toronto and I catalogued that in a series of posts which start here.  What we had was a non adaptive set of processes.   So in no particular order, taking a complexity and a pragmatic position lets look at what could have been done.

  1. We were given an option to leave the train at Ashford and go back to London, but we had no accurate estimate of how long to get to Paris, or when we would get back to London.   That would have allowed for example trying to book a flight and they could have offered a bus to Gatwick or Heathrow for those who wanted it.  Simple things but it would have made a difference.
  2. No one came to find out what connections we had, so you had to make do and mend on arrival in Paris.  They had two members of staff to deal with issues for a packed Eurostar train and four members of staff handing out small bottles of mineral water.   You feel the priority was wrong there. 
  3. They had two hours after we left the Chunnel to set up simple SNCF here, Thalys here booths with people able to quickly stamp tickets.  With a Thalys train going in 15 minutes they could even have had a special booth for that or simple told people they could get on the train and brief the guards to accept tickets if you also had a Eurostar one.
  4. They could have told us before we left London about the likely delays so an informed decision could be made.
  5. The staff on the train could have been increased (two trains did not leave but I bet their crew turned up) and dedicated to working through with people what they should do when they got to Paris so we didn't have the total mess.

There are probably other things, but the frustration here is a focus on process not adaptive anticipation.  The latter is easy to manage and to train for, but everyone wants certainty in the planning process that can never be replicated in practice.

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