Eurostar's new E320 trains are fast connecting Europe
Eurostar's new fleet of high-tech E320 trains are not only some of the fastest in the world but are revolutionising journeys around Europe. Anthony Dennis reports.
Below the impossibly vast vaulted iron and glass ceiling of St Pancras International located in London's King's Cross – surely the world's most grandiose shed – my Eurostar service slips away from the platform, as gently as a ship untethered from its moorings, as it embarks on its journey from London to Paris. "You're travelling on one of our brand new trains," an official French-accented voice crackles over the on-board PA. "We would value your first impressions."
Impressions? Even after just a few minutes aboard, I feel sure that Eurostar's brand new e320 high-speed train, which inside feels more akin to the cushier end of an airliner cabin than I've experienced on rail, is going to provide me with a smooth, comfortable and stylish journey to the French capital. Why would anyone battle hellish Heathrow and God-awful Charles de Gaulle when you can travel in this fine fashion?
However, while my ride is smooth, Eurostar's passage in the past year has been a comparatively rocky one. Horrific events in Paris, and latterly Brussels, as well as periodic closures of the Cross Channel Tunnel due to asylum-seeker incursions, have seen fares between the British and French capitals on the cross-channel route plummet to record lows as tourists elected to stay away en masse.
It's hardly been the most opportune time either for Eurostar, which last year celebrated its 20th anniversary, to launch a new train. Undeterred by the pall over Paris and ensconced in the extreme comfort of business premier class, I'm determined to enjoy the experience aboard what remains one of the better inter-city train services in the world.
The new train's external livery and airliner-style interiors were designed by Pininfarina, the Italian design house which has worked with Ferrari and Maserati with the actual bespoke rolling stock engineered by Siemens. Certainly, when the new and old Eurostar trains are juxtaposed on a platform the difference is apparent: a little like sports car parked next to a people-mover. It's all a taste of what we could expect – though alas probably not – one day back home between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
Aside from ergonomically designed reclining seats, complete with British and continental power-sockets and free Wi-Fi, the most welcome feature is the luggage racks, centrally located in each carriage for easy access, allowing bags to remain in full sight and within easy access at all times. It's something, according to Eurostar, that was introduced as part of feedback sought from passengers when the e320 was being developed.
In two decades Eurostar's network has evolved nearly with the rapidity of one of its trains with destinations now including not just Paris, Brussels and Lille but Provence, with stops in Lyon, Avignon and Marseille. A new direct route is planned for later this year between London and Amsterdam stopping at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schipol.
It's the hi-tech e320, one set of which can carry nearly 1000 passengers – more than double that of a typical A380 airliner – which has made the opening of these newer routes possible. The e320 train is "inter-operable", meaning it has the ability to operate right across the diverse range of European signalling systems.
Back on the rails, it's remarkable how soon we leave London behind, with the e320, capable of speeds of 320km/h (hence the name), careering through the English countryside, bound for its rendezvous with the more than 50 kilometres-long Chunnel.
The distance between London and Paris is 344 kilometres – a touch over that between Sydney and Canberra – with a travelling time of about 2½ hours (it takes almost 4½ hours by train between those two Australian cities). Even with the downturn in visitor numbers to Paris, there are still multiple daily services between London and Paris and vice-a-versa.
On the other side of the English Channel at Calais, now well into my journey, I see that the Anglo-French frontier has been transformed into a fearsome fortress of razor wire, clearly designed to deter Chunnel intruders, particularly the asylum-seekers from the nearby makeshift camp. There are flashing blue lights atop trackside police vehicles with circumspect officers patrolling on foot.
The scene is made all of the more forbidding by the fact we're travelling through a stark, misty mid-winter landscape with pockets of frozen ponds and frost-covered meadows. "Welcome to France," a conductor declares, sans irony, over the PA.
Further on, almost identical church steeples emerge from above one squat grey-brown, terracotta-roofed village after another as an enormous flock of white birds follow in the wake of a tractor ploughing a trackside field. Elsewhere, a lone jogger, clad in a fluoro orange top, is shuffling along a cobbled country back road that intersects farmland.
Inside my carriage I'm surrounded by exquisitely attired and groomed French businesswomen, each complementing the contemporary interiors of the new train and adding to the unmistakable international ambience of the Eurostar. Unlike for me, this is clearly a routine commuter trip for my fellow passengers as I'm the only passenger bothering to gaze at the scenery flashing past the windows.
Eventually the charm of the French countryside surrenders to less alluring light-industrial and then the graffiti-daubed outer suburbs of Paris. Our arrival at Gare du Nord, Paris' Eurostar terminal, is considerably less grand than St Pancras with the Parisian terminal its poor Gallic cousin, even – though some French pride is being restored by an overdue multi-million Euro upgrade.
Two and a half hours later, as I enter the station and spot my waiting taxi driver booked for me back at St Pancras at the business premier-class lounge (all part of the service) hasn't been quite like riding in a Ferrari (or a Maserati) but it's one of the nearest thing you'll get to it on rail.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND ST PANCRAS
THE STATION If you're taking the Eurostar to the continent allow some time to experience what is one of the world's most beautiful railway stations. Restored at a cost of well over $1 billion, the Victorian Gothic St Pancras Station was opened in 1868 and is considered one of the greatest feats of engineering of the Victorian era. Look out for the marvellous centrepiece statue of the late poet, writer and broadcaster, Sir John Betjeman. He was ardent advocate of St Pancras' preservation. See www.stpancras.com
THE HOTEL One of the most beautiful of London's Victorian era hotels in one of the most beautiful of London Victorian-era buildings, a stay, even for one night, at the 207-room St Pancras Renaissance is a great companion to a journey on the Eurostar, even if it's only for a night. Don't miss the amazing restored central staircase inside what was originally known as the Midland Grand Hotel. The best guestrooms are the pricier ones overlooking the towering station roof and the coming and going Eurostar trains. See www.stpancraslondon.com
THE TOUR Even if you're not staying at the hotel, it's possible to take a tour of its magnificent historic and beautifully-restored public spaces (and, if you're lucky, some private ones as well) at certain times of the week with a vaunted Blue Badge guide. Check on timings with the hotel as the tours are less frequent these days. Before or after the tour grab a drink or a bite to eat at one of the hotel's venues such as the always packed Booking Office, the station's erstwhile ticket hall. See www.stpancraslondon.com
THE BAR You can't really take a trip on the Eurostar from London to Paris without pausing for a bubbly at the now famous 110-seat Searcy's Champagne Bar, located right beside the Eurostar trains behind thick transparent glass on their tracks. There's even a "press for champagne" button for your convenience at each table. Opposite the bar there's a decent bistro, run by the same outfit as the bubbly bar, with good-value fixed price luncheon menu. See www.searcys.co.uk
THE RESTAURANT One of the hottest new restaurants in Kings Cross, where St Pancras International is located, is the German Gymnasium, a short stroll up the street from the terminal. Built by the local London German community in the early 20th century as an actual gym, the cavernous space has been transformed into a restaurant with stunning effect. And the excellent food, coupled with top-notch service, gives German cuisine a good name. See www.germangymnasium.com
See also: An epic train journey like no other
Qantas operates daily flights to London Heathrow from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. Eurostar operates multiple high-speed rail services, which can be booked through Railbookers' packages (see below) between London's St Pancras International and Paris's Gare du Nord terminals. See www.qantas.com.au; www.railbookers.com
Railbookers is a British-based tour operator specialising in tailored-made packaged holidays by train around Europe and other parts of the world including Asia and the US. It can arrange all itineraries, ticketing and accommodation bookings, including travel on the Eurostar and accommodation at St Pancras Renassiance Hotel. See www.railbookers.com
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is within the historic rail terminal of the same name, meaning the Eurostar platforms are mere steps away. A porter is available, if required, to transfer your luggage by trolley to the entrance to the Eurostar departure gates. See www.stpancraslondon.com. In Paris, stay at the five-star boutique-style Hotel Baltimore, located between the Arch de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. See www.mgallery.com/baltimore. Each of the aforementioned hotels can booked as part of a Railbookers package.
Anthony Dennis was a guest of Railbookers, Qantas, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Accor Hotels and Visit Britain.