“Welcome everyone,” said the voice over the loudspeaker as the doors closed and our Eurostar train slowly, without fanfare, pulled away from St Pancras station shortly after 8pm on the last Friday in January.
“This is the very first ski train of the winter, direct to Moûtiers and Bourg-St-Maurice in the French Alps… and we are finally on our way!” Both towns are the bridgeheads of a stack of famous French ski resorts, including Méribel, Courchevel, La Plagne, Les Arcs, Val d’Isère and Tignes.
The fact that our trip started six weeks and 15 minutes technically late was inconsequential to the 310 British snow enthusiasts of all ages on board. Most of them were probably unaware that they were present at a momentous moment in the history of the train journey from London to the Alps.
Undoubtedly, many of them were also unaware that it had taken a huge dollop of French lift company influence and Gallic expertise to make this happen. We were traveling from London on a French charter train organized by a French tour operator called Travelski Express, a newcomer to the struggling UK ski market.
159 years? Thomas Cook organized the first train to the Alps in 1863. Top speed was 12 mph with insufficient heating, meals and other facilities.
Exactly one hundred years later, as a teenager, I traveled to Austria on an Erna Low ski charter train with a disco car powered by a record player mounted on gimbals designed to counter the shortcomings of the old rolling stock. But each time we passed a series of dots, the stylus screeched across the vinyl, drowning out the lyrics to Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again. During the 1980s a consortium of UK operators ran their own charter through Dover and Calais, also with a disco car.