27 MayMore Business Travel. The Ashes Test.

April 2010. London. With its well known complete inability to deal with snow and the ease with which “British Rail” succumbs to something as everyday as “leaves on the track”, the United Kingdom has to be the spiritual home of travel disruption.  With that said, something really unique is in the air. Up in Iceland, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano has exploded, sending ash into the clouds that have now found their way over most of Western and Central Europe. All flights into and out of Europe are cancelled; there are people stranded all over the place; some are lucky to be stuck in their holiday resort, others are less lucky and find themselves stuck in transit in an airport. Nobody is going anywhere, by plane at least.

Me, I am not stuck, but I am in London and both need and want to be in Zurich. Plane is out and I do not have a car. The media are reporting that every immediate ticket for the Eurostar train to Paris is booked and people are queuing in droves to buy what is available for later. The cross channel ferry is really an old fashioned way to get to continental Europe; I have not used it in over 20 years. Tickets for foot passengers are sold out on the web too, but there are tickets being sold if you have a bike. I book myself one of these and print out the ticket. Even if I have no bike, this is a bird in the hand. Now to get to Dover, the main ferry port as well as the ending point for the Dunkirk evacuation and the starting point for D-day invasion in World War II.

A wise old hand, Steve Clements, points out that I don’t need the Eurostar. He advises me to hop on a regional train to Dover. So starting out at 7am, I leave London, heading South with a plan, but no certainty, of winding my way back to Zurich. Making my way to the ferry port in Dover was easy enough. There I encounter a scene that owes something to the movies; it looks like the last flight out of Saigon. People everywhere, clamouring for attention. I soon realise that my idea with the “ticket with bicycle” is not as cunning as I thought. Firstly, the ferry company is strict about the bike; I had forgotten how huge the port is. No walking. So yes, I can give it up and yes that they can sell me a ticket as a foot passenger, but that is another queue. A long one. I give up the ticket and decide to take my chances in the line for P&O Ferries; they seem to have the most people on duty. It is now close to midday and they offer me a ticket for a boat at 4pm. I take it. Sometime I find myself chatting to is on an earlier boat. They call him to go the bus for the ride across the port to the boat; shades of Zurich airport and the bus rides to the London City plane. I decide I have nothing to lose by trying to blag my way onto the earlier boat. Sure enough, the controls are not really tight and I join my new friend on the early ferry to Calais.

At Calais, there is mad scramble to get a taxi into town. Matt, my new travelling companion is off to the international terminal, en route to his home in Geneva; he has a ticket already for a TGV train to Paris. I decide to head for the main station in Calais. As I get there, the last train to Paris has pulled out. The first train the next morning is at 6am. So fate has decided I have to spend the night in Calais. Sadly, fate has somehow seen to it that the local motel is something so down at heal, I feel that even my English boarding school experience involved better accommodation. Tant pis, as our French friends might say. I set my alarm clock to give me enough time to make that first train. To my amazement, the next morning at 545 am there is a huge queue at the station. So huge,that there is no way to buy a ticket in time to board the train. I decide to try to use one of the ticket machines. Instruction is in French only, but my schoolboy skills are up to the task. Single to Paris. But, the machine does not like my non-French credit card. This is the train station in a port, where one might expect the odd traveller or two who would want pay electronically.   Mais non, c’est impossible. Time is running out, the train leaves in five minutes. I switch to Plan C; Euro cash. The ATM outside is working and will take foreign cards. Bless the Maestro network. Cash in hand, I decide to blag my way onto the train. Charging down the steps, I see a conductor; “C’est possible d’acheter un billet sur le train?” I blabber. He nods, I jump in. The train is pretty empty and I am headed toward Amiens, somewhere just short of half way to Paris. Light relief. At Amiens, there is a big ticket office and, mercifully, no queue. I go in search of a ticket from Paris to Zurich. The counter clerk gives a shake of his head: “Très difficile, presque tout complet”, he tells me with that very Gallic shrug of the shoulders. I ask him to check and he finds a seat on a train leaving Paris late that evening. I take it. Back on the train, I head towards Paris, where I switch to the nearby Gare Du Lyon.

Chaos. People everywhere, mounds of baggage, queues everywhere, scarcely room to move. Lots of signs about delayed trains and signs next to every departure saying: “Complet”, the French word for full. My process centric mind tells me that this can’t really be the case. How is the internet and all the booking processes going to work seamlessly with a train out on the tracks? I load up on water and sandwiches, buying it when I can and not when I have to. Since it is only me I have to look after, I decide to try and blag a seat on the next train heading my way. The TGV trains that criss-cross France and Europe are huge creatures, many wagons long. As a train toward Strassbourg and Basel pulls in, I head for the far end of the platform. The train is very full and there are people fighting their way on. At the very front is first class. I spot a free seat and bundle towards it. No sign of a reservation sticker, I quickly check with the person in the seat next to it: “Is this seat taken?”. A good old Gallic shoulder shrug, suggests he does not know. So I plonk myself down, figuring possession is nine tenths. The train pulls out, nobody comes to claim the seat. Relief. Switzerland here I come. A quick change of train in Basel and I am on the last part of the journey. One more change in Zurich is needed to make it to my village. Amazingly, I manage to get on the wrong train and end up way past where I need to be. An annoying mistake at the end of a long journey.

By the time I am home, it is about 6pm. An hour shy of 36 hours after leaving London. Reminds me why I like that plane to City Airport so much.

Lessons Learned:  When it looks like the main route to getting something is done, you need to be creative in coming up with a Plan B. Then do not believe everything you read or are told; keep going, make progress and don’t take no for an answer.

Priorities and resources. A perpetual balancing act. I am currently doing some work in an organisation that is trying to balance multiple priorities across multiple projects. The bit that I am involved in has been making sounds about priorities and how it wants to come first. Yet there are important deliverables missing. We know about the clash with other the other projects and the resource crunch. At this point, rather than moan and tie up scarce resources in meetings, we need to make sure our work is done and we have given the rest of the folk the inout they need. Then we can talk about squeezing our way to the top of the priority list.

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