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With more Eurostar trains now running again on routes from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, travellers have been awaiting news of ski trains to the French Alps and the reinstatement of other services.
But recent news from Eurostar hasn’t been good. This week the train operator announced that services to Marne-la-Vallée (for Disneyland Paris) wouldn’t run until late March 2022. Then it said no Eurostar services would stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford in Kent until 2023.
“As the business starts its recovery, we need to focus on core destinations where demand is highest,” said a Eurostar spokesperson.
So with Eurostar attending to its core business, the prospects for any direct trains from London to the Alps seemed close to zero for the winter season. If Eurostar’s two Kent stations were off the map, surely the season service to the Tarentaise region wouldn’t be running?
Now it seems that Moûtiers and Bourg-Saint-Maurice will again rub shoulders with Margate and Bedford on departure boards at St Pancras station. Friday 17 December is being touted as a likely start date for a weekly train, leaving London in the evening and running overnight to the Tarentaise valley. One source close to Eurostar suggests a likely departure time of 7.45pm, giving arrival in Moûtiers around 5.30am the next morning and reaching Bourg-Saint-Maurice 45 minutes later. The return run from the Alps to London will be a daytime service with an eight-hour travel time.
The catch is that it’s a charter train. So it’s run by Eurostar, but passengers cannot book tickets through Eurostar or regular sales channels for rail tickets. The French resort and theme-park operator Compagnie des Alpes (CDA) is effectively taking the financial risk by chartering an entire train from Eurostar. CDA’s Travelski subsidiary will handle bookings for packages that include accommodation, ski passes and transfers – but only for resorts managed by CDA. These include Méribel and Les Menuires in the 3 Vallées ski area.
Resorts that are not part of CDA’s empire are annoyed. “Not good news for Courchevel,” said a representative of the local tourist office. CDA has effectively upstaged competitor resorts in the Tarentaise, among them Courchevel, which has long been a favourite with British visitors.
Travelski will promote and manage the new rail-inclusive tours, and the Eurostar train will be called Travelski Express, making it one of just five trains with names serving St Pancras. However, Travelski Express doesn’t evoke the rich historical associations of the Robin Hood or the Master Cutler; both names have featured in the timetables for more than 60 years.
Skiers who book on the overnight Travelski Express to the French Alps won’t have the creature comforts of a sleeping car, which is now enjoying such a renaissance across continental Europe. Instead, there will be just regular seats for the journey.
It is not yet clear how Travelski will manage the confusing maze of Covid restrictions applicable to cross-Channel journeys. A tweak of Britain’s traffic lights may yet wreak havoc with the plans, and there’s no hint so far that rail-ski packages booked with Travelski will be refundable if Covid travel rules change.
Bookings will open later this month. Also, Eurostar is likely to maintain its no-alcohol rule, introduced in late 2015 on overnight trains to the Alps. Little has changed since the world’s very first charter train when, 180 years ago, Thomas Cook organised a temperance movement excursion from Leicester to Loughborough. “No booze” was the rule then and it looks set to apply to the 19.45 from St Pancras to Bourg-Saint-Maurice.