Slog on Tour

Me1 More meanderings both physical and cerebral have been called for this week. Eurostar, the Paris periphérique, learnings from the Titanic disaster, travel advice for Islamic bombers, tips for sign writers and death to all demand planners.

Unbelievably, it is 20 years since I last used Eurostar. A lot has changed since then.

Like anything of any strategic and business value or significance in the West, it has become a target just waiting to be attacked….or as the peace-loving Nazi-hunter Owen Jones would say, “smashed”. So it’s like airline flights now: you have to get there early, join endless queues, go through two sets of screening, and have your ticket checked eleven times. Yet curiously, there are no contraband items. So, um, what exactly is the point?

The dead brain of the functionary has been at work again. The eurostar service has not been attacked yet, as such, so we can stay at Defcom 3 rather than 5: the traveller will be dehumanised, but not to a degree that might be efficacious. The élite sport of tick-boxing continues unabated.

Other things haven’t changed at all. 20 years on, there is still only one (1) magazine and snacks cash desk in the waiting lounge with one (1) person manning it, sorry, personning it; thus creating one (1) enormous queue that stretches the complete length of the dedicated hall at Gare du Nord. The dead brain of the service planner is also in excellent shape.

I was thinking about that while driving up to Paris. I was thinking how all road, rail, airport, ferry, landline or air2air  communications provision throughout my 69 years has so woefully underestimated demand, every one of them in 2017 involves queues, crowds and confusion. I was also wondering why these same incompetent people are often given the job of road signage design and positioning in what is, overall, referred to as planning in the urban connections space.

I would imagine the interview for planners goes something like this:

Human Resources: Do you travel much?

Applicant: Hardly ever

HR: Can you drive?

App: No

HR: If you were writing a mobile phone manual, on what page would you explain how to make a call: Page 1, Page 13 or Page 78?

App: I wouldn’t insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious

HR: What do you think are the most important considerations when designing a supermarket car park?

App: To make the exits discreet and narrow, and to have lots of exotic bushes and pretty flowers everywhere that all need a lot of watering.

HR: If you don’t get this job, what other things would you like to be?

App: An estate agent.

HR: Excellent….when can you start?

The guidance offered to those approaching the Paris periphérique via the A20 is an object lesson in how the bureaucratic and process-obsessed mind is 100% consistent: it always gets the importance heirarchy upside down, and it always leaves everyone exposed to its mysterious works utterly baffled.

It is 105 years since the Titanic sank, but the most important piece of learning from that darkly hilarious example of human hubris is this: 92% of the two-hour submersion took place in the last 7 minutes. Today, the signage preceding the periph offers the driver 92% of the information required in the last 30 seconds.

The panic and indecisive survival tactics thus adopted by motorists during that mercilessly brief period are not unlike the sight of people running up and down a sinking liner’s deck, wondering which end to choose. Lanes are switched, swerves are commonplace, bollards are narrowly avoided, and the accelerator/brake action in the footwell must be like Fred Astaire dancing to Puttin’ on the Ritz.

No excuse can pardon the existence of this chaos, as the autoroute stretches all the way back to Orléans – and for most people heading north on that stretch the target is, let’s be clear about this, Paris, it’s periphérique and ohmyGodhowthefuck am I going to navigate the damn thing. Why telescope 90 minutes into 30 seconds?

The last sign advising the approach of the capital city says ‘Paris 86’. After that, the road splits, both signs say Paris, and neither of them employs the words periphérique, east, west, Porte d’Italie or Porte d’Orléans….which is odd because that’s where you’re starting, depending on whether you want to go clockwise or anti-clockwise. I chose the one saying Boulogne, because that’s north-west and I wanted to go west.

The first clue that you’re nearly on the periph is an electronic sign saying ‘BP 5mins’. This is obscure sign-speak for ‘boulevard pereiphérique’, a term nobody either in or outside Paris ever uses to describe the infamous ring-road. Approaching London, a sign about half a skyscraper tall proclaims ‘London Orbital M25’ with one arrow saying west and the other one east, and then gives the motorist at least five warnings about what lane to be in. The A20 heading at 110 kph to Paris, by contrast, explains what to do if you’re heading for the coast.

The only hint that one is actually on the periphérique is the first porte sign. It appears within 800 metres, when the actual exit is 200 metres away….giving us all eight seconds to shift across two lanes. Counting the fifteen portes to Clichy, four of them are in dark tunnels using unlit signs, and none of the signs offer any information beyond its name. But the electronic signs do keep telling you the traffic is moving – a fact easily verifiable by looking through the windscreen.

After careering right with smoke rising from the tyres in order to exit, the traffic heading into Paris divides into two types. First, cars full of people completely lost, with the adults inside yelling at each other; and second, Parisians using full access to the horn every time the screaming souls in front of them dither or dawdle. To add to the fun, the lights at Clichy were out that day, and the collective noun for gendarmes in the area was An Absence.

After that, I thanked my stars for having spent every day I was a temporary Citadin during the summer walking around in a bid to keep fit and orienteer. So on spotting Sacré Coeur cathedral, I relaxed until I saw a sign saying ‘Gare du Nord’, and took it in a manner positive enough to attract multiple horn abuse.

The eurostar itself departed and arrived spot on time. There we were, out of season and heading towards the least attractive weather in Europe: but the train was packed from end to end. The company running the operation had to be baled out in the early days, but that’s long gone now: it’s wifi’d, quicker, cheaper, less hassle and more comfortable than flying from Paris, and always heavily demanded. So it would be nice if Eurotunnel ran to a few more employees in order to both reduce the screening chaos, and enable customers to be the right side of dehydrated starvation on arrival in London.

As for those readers keen to follow the will of Allah by blowing up and/or beheading every infidel on the planet, I offer in conclusion some guidance on avoiding detection when tunnelling your way into the UK:
1. Do not pack large grenades, scimitars, Kalashnikovs or balaclavas in your luggage
2. Do not wear watches or carry change through the screening, as this may arouse suspicion
3. To avoid being searched, always sport strictly orthodox Islamic garments and full beard, swivel your eyes in an agitated manner, and preach loudly from the C’ran
4. Matches, dynamite, non-electronic fuses, gelignite in toothpaste tubes and cut-throat razors can safely be taken on board.

Enjoy the weekend.