Seventeen years later, high-speed Eurostar still the fastest, most efficient link across the Channel

by Ron Bernthal

Eurostar trains at platforms in London's St. Pancras International Station (photo courtesy Eurostar)

At Brussels Midi-Zuid train station, I follow the signage to Eurostar’s check-in area, where I print my boarding pass at a convenient e-ticket machine, walk with my baggage through a fast-moving security lane, and wait a few minutes for a cursory UK passport check for non-Eurozone passengers going to London. The entire check-in procedure is similar to being at the airport, except for some important differences – shoes remain on your feet, laptops do not have to be taken out of their cases, liquids are allowed onboard the train, and everyone is friendly and relaxed.

I first started travelling across the English Channel in the 1960’s, taking a slow train from London or Paris, and switching to a large ferry for the sometimes rough two-hour crossing to Calais or Dover. It was an all-day voyage between the two capitals, and usually not very pleasant.

When I visited Dover by car, in the early 1990’s, I remember watching the construction of the British end of the train tunnel that was expected to carry high-speed passenger trains under the Channel in just 20 minutes. I never thought it would happen.

Seventeen years later I wait to board the Eurostar train from Brussels to London, scheduled to take just one hour and 57 minutes from downtown Brussels to downtown London. I stand with my fellow passengers in a waiting area near the track, anticipating an on-time departure at 2:29 pm.

Eurostar attendant waits outside reserved seat carriage for boarding at Brussels Station. (photo courtesy Eurostar)

We are called to the platform about 10 minutes before departure. My boarding pass indicates the carriage and seat number, and uniformed Eurostar conductors are at the steps ready to offer assistance. Most of the European businessmen and upscale leisure passengers seem to be frequent Eurostar riders, familiar with the check-in procedures, and walking quickly to their carriage and reserved seats. My seat in the Standard Premiere carriage is wide, the velour fabric soft and inviting. The armrests are grey leather,a good size metal work/food tray folds out from the seat in front. Soft lighting emanates from attractive sconces above a large, clean rectangular window, and additional reading lights are overhead, airline style. I start to read the on-board menu, which, like all Eurostar’s written material, is in English and French.

At exactly 2:29 the train, with an almost imperceptible shrug, starts moving slowly out of the station, and within a few minutes we are past the drab, concrete office buildings of Brussels and crossing the flat, Belgian landscape in the western suburbs, shooting past shopping centers, small factories, light manufacturing plants, and finally reaching our “cruising” speed of 186 mph as the freshly plowed, brown farmland and the tentative green braches of spring trees, begins to flash past the windows. In the distance towering wind turbines, their white blades slowly turning,stand on fallow pasture land, dwarfing the medieval church steeples of nearby stone villages.

I recline my seat and enjoy the view, appreciating the fact that I am not looking down at Europe from an airplane window, but riding through it, watching how the well-manicured villages of Belgium morph into the gritty suburbs of Lille, France, in less than 30 minutes, as the train slows down approaching Lille Europe station, our only stop between Brussels and London.

After a five-minute stopwe glide out of Lille, and carriage attendants serve a complimentary cold snack and drinks, including wine, to passengers in the Standard Premiere carriage. There seem to be just six of us in the 45-passenger carriage, with most of the other passengers seated in the less expensive Standard carriages (no free meal), or the more expensive Business Premiere carriage (a full, complimentary hot meal, Champaign, and Wi-Fi). My “snack,” however, is quite good, consisting of cold slices of Antwerp beef fillet with marinated olives, a mini-choux pastry filled with cheese frais, with radish and grilled chicken.The small chocolates on my tray are from Belgium, the butter and bread from France, the Coke from the UK. Eurostar’s promotional literature says that a breakfast menu is offered until 11 am, a full lunch until 2 pm, and dinner items are served after 4:30 pm. Passengers in the Standard carriages purchase meals from the buffet car.

Large Olympic Rings welcome passengers to St. Pancras Station. London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics. (photo Ron Bernthal)

After departing Lille I sense a change in the light as we get closer to the English Channel. The farmhouses and fields in the countryside become brighter and sharper in the brilliant, but fragile, sunlight as we get closer to the water. But before the Channel comes into view it suddenly becomes very dark outside the window as the train races down the tracks and slips into the 3-tube Eurotunnel, called the “Chunnel” since it opened for passenger and vehicle train services in 1994.

It takes just 20-minutes ride through the dark, 30-mile tunnel, exactly what was promised 27 years ago. Before I could even finish the magazine article I was reading, theblack void outside the window is gone, and a maze of railroad tracks, high electrical wires, and truck and car loading lots for Eurotunnel’s vehicle trains, are outside the train. In one seems like an instant, we have arrived in England. The terrain in the Kent countryside is hilly, with more trees than in France or Belgium, and the tracks parallel a British motorway. As the suburbs of south London come into view, I know that this comfortable, enjoyable ride is almost over.

In another 30 minutes we arrive at St. Pancras International, at the modern, new Eurostar section of this historic London station. Passengers disembark, heading to taxis or to Underground trains, to reach their final city destinations. Our arrival time is 3:27 pm, one-minute late. (Downtown Brussels to downtown London, in one-hour, 57-minutes; London is one-hour time-zone difference from Brussels).

Eurostar, a unit of the giant French rail company, SNCF, runs the high-speed passenger trains between London, Brussels, and Paris, competing with several air carriers over the same routes. Passenger traffic on Eurostar continues to increase as soaring auto fuel prices, high European road tolls, few weather delays, and a more tolerable security system give Eurostar an edge in the important city center-to-city center time factor. There’s no way the airlines can compete with a Brussels-London time of 1:57, or the Paris-London time of just 2:15. Eurostar also has seasonal routes to Marne-la-Vallee (Disneyland Paris) from ParisGare du Nord.

The Business Premiere lounge at St. Pancras for passengers waiting to board Eurostar trains to Paris or Brussels. (photo courtesy Eurostar)

Many of Eurostar’s current carriages are showing their age, however, and the company has been refurbishing the equipment and plans to purchase new equipment shortly, possibly the cool-looking ICE trains from Siemens, through an agreement with the German rail company, Deutsche Bahn. The two companies often follow a controversial path. When a new EU law was passed in early 2010, allowing European rail firms the rights to cross each other’s borders with high-speed international services, Deutsche Bahn, with an eye towards the 2012 London Olympics, and the expected huge boost in cross-Channel traffic, asked for permission to run its own high-speed trains through the Eurotunnel, called through a company called Eurotunnel. This did not sit well with the French, and some cross border squabbling will certainly take place before an agreement is worked out.

Eurostar, too, has bigger ambitions than just ferrying passengers under water between three cities, no matter how big the cities are. The company is rebranding itself as it pushes to become a larger presence in the European rail market. A new logo has been developed, now applied to the Eurostar website and on travel tickets, onboard menus, and marketing pieces. The company hopes to expand its rail service into the south of France, Germany, and the Netherlands, with new equipment and on-board enhancements. It is also expected to increase frequency and add capacity to London during the Olympic events.

For auto travelers and commercial truckers travelling between England and France most drivers are choosing Eurotunnel, the company that operateshigh-speed vehicle trains through the Chunnel, over the 2.5-hour ferry service, which still exists. Eurostar’s approximately 50 passenger trains per day that move through the Eurotunnel account for just 11% of the tunnel’s total rail traffic; the rest are the Eurotunnel firm’s own trains that load private cars and commercial trucks onto specially designed rail cars. The cross-channel travel time for these trains is about 35 minutes.

RidingEurostar from Brussels to London was a true pleasure. Check-in was fast and easy; the high-speed train departed on-time and arrived in London just one-minute late. A complimentary meal was served at my seat, and the train carriage was clean and comfortable, the farms and villages of three countries passing by the large windows of the carriages. With normal one-way Brussels-London fares ranging from 43 euros ($62) for Standard seats, to 323 euros ($498) for non-refundable Business Premiere seats, Eurostar caters to every budget, and offers many affordable roundtrip, weekend, and special event fares.

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