Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Eurostar travel chaos leads to marathon Brussels trip

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Brussels

A Eurostar train
A tortuous journey back to Brussels for the BBC's Jonny Dymond

At St Pancras International station weary strings of travellers stood and sat forlornly at lunchtime on Saturday.

Eurostar workers stood in little knots, or clustered around police officers, looking for safety either in numbers or in a firm truncheon and a pair of handcuffs.

The normally slick and cheery Eurostar PR machine had collapsed into near silence. But one thing was clear: High Speed 1, as the British end of the network calls itself, was going nowhere.

With two children in the care of a friend who thought he was looking after them for just a few hours, getting back to Brussels was an imperative.

So I abandoned the worthy carbon-neutrality of Eurostar and booked myself onto an American Airways flight to Brussels the next morning.

At 0700 on Sunday Heathrow was bustling, the skies blue, aeroplanes already lifting off into the sunshine. What could go wrong?

"I'll not pick you up from the airport," texted my friend. "The streets are blocked with snow."

An alarm bell started ringing faintly as I trudged towards the departure gate.

The flight was delayed. Plucky Brussels airport had been buried in snow; de-icers were working on the runway.

Beginning to panic

"Brussels should be open by 1100," came the announcement. But it wasn't.

"It is bucketing snow here," came another text. And so came another announcement: "We have a takeoff slot for 1500." I wandered off. By the time I returned to the gate, it was empty, my bag the object of suspicion.

The flight had been cancelled, and instructions were given to retrieve checked baggage and go to the sales desk.

Heathrow must be a strong contender in the "Worst Sign-Posted Airport in The World" competition. I pelted round seemingly identical corridors searching for the luggage carousel. I was beginning to panic.

My friend hadn't signed up for this. My children might forget me. And they would very soon run out of underwear.

British Airways planes on the runway at Heathrow
Jonny's attempts to get to Brussels from Heathrow were thwarted too

I rocked up to the airline's sales desk; what they made of the sweating, wild-eyed man, muttering crazily about children's underwear I do not know. But they secured me a flight to Paris, which looks on the map pretty close to Brussels. Via Dublin.

By 1900 I was in Dublin airport, which is a truly charming place to be on a Sunday night. As I dashed across the entire length of the terminal in search of someone who might give me a boarding pass for Paris, I realised that the sign-makers of Dublin airport had been carefully tutored by their colleagues at Heathrow.

"The plane is delayed," said the lovely woman who re-opened check-in for me and my new best friends, the two businessmen and the two ladies-with-the-baby who were caught up in the fever of trying to get to Paris.

"But that means that your luggage will have time to be transferred."

Disappointed customers

How wrong she was.

By 2340 I was marvelling at the bulk of a 747, shrouded with fog and snow, as the airport bus drove us round the strange jumble of buildings that makes up Charles de Gaulle airport. By 0130 I was filling out missing luggage forms with the two ladies-with-the-baby.

The regional railway to Paris was closed. I took a taxi, pondering on how very expensive being stranded could be.

At 0230, in the seedy neighbourhood around Paris' Gare du Nord, a prostitute propositioned me as I sucked on a cigarette in the freezing night air.

"Ca va monsieur?" she twinkled.

"Ca va, merci," I laughed, amused at the prospect of anything other than travel, before stumbling to bed for a magnificent three hours sleep.

At 0625 I was in Gare du Nord. A long queue of very disappointed Eurostar customers slunk around the station.

A French railway SNCF company staff member gives information to travellers in the Gare du Nord, Paris
More frustrations for passengers at the Gare du Nord in Paris

The first high-speed train to Brussels sat in the station for 40 minutes, nudged forward about five metres and then gave up.

I changed to another train. It slid through the snowy landscape of northern France and Belgian at around half of its normal super-speed.

As a long-time devotee of the flawed glory of British Rail, it was good to see the French succumbing to the 'malaise Anglaise'.

At 0930 the train glided into the fantastically ugly Gare du Midi in Brussels.

My luggage was in Dublin, my wallet was lighter by several hundred pounds and I didn't smell too good.

But I was home.

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