Robert Hampton

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28th March 2014

Let the train take away the strain

Robert and EurostarWhen I first announced to people that I was going to Amsterdam by train, I described it as “the hard way”.

Don’t get me wrong – the possibility of a train journey spanning four countries and two time zones filled me with gleeful anticipation – but I was expecting a certain amount of tribulation and, yes, faff. For you see, while Britain’s railway network is comforting and familiar to me, Europe’s was, by and large, an unknown quantity to me. Years of experience has allowed me to navigate Britain’s privatised railway with ease, but on the continent there is a whole new maze of terminology to get to grips with: there’s Thalys and TGV and ICE, all with slightly differing rules and regulations. It’s all a bit complicated, even with experts like The Man In Seat 61 on hand to offer advice.

I like the idea of international travel by train – there’s no need to decant liquids into a tiny plastic bag, no seat belts to fasten, and you can keep your phone turned on. Until this week, however, my exposure to European railways has been limited to a few trips on Berlin’s S-Bahn network. Determined to change that, I started cooking up plans last year to make some international rail journeys, and quickly zeroed in on Amsterdam as a destination. My original plan involved taking a ride on the DutchFlyer rail and sail service. However, a glance at Eurostar’s web site revealed that tickets from London to Amsterdam were available on selected trains for just £49.50 one-way. This was only a few pounds more expensive than the DutchFlyer fare, and offered a much faster journey.

So, at just after 8am on Tuesday morning, I was at London St Pancras station, ready to catch the Eurostar to Brussels. As I emerged into the bustling terminus, I felt a tinge of anxiety. As usual, my mind was calculating everything that could go wrong – a fire in the Channel Tunnel, some errant weather, a wildcat French strike.

I was thrilled, therefore, to have the company of Ian Jones, who joined me last year on my thrilling Caledonian Sleeper adventure. On that trip, Ian spent a total of five days with me, which is more than most people can tolerate. It was nice to have someone to share the experience, and if the worst happened, I’d have to someone to talk to while we waited for rescue.

Ian, unlike me, is not new to European train travel. Twenty years ago, he went InterRailing – an epic two week tour of Europe which involved a broken-down ferry, a contretemps over seat reservations and “prolonged constipation”. Since that trip (perhaps because of it), he has never set foot outside Britain. However, Ian purchased a new passport specifically so he could join me.

European train travel has changed dramatically since Ian’s last trip. In the summer of 1994 Eurostar had not yet launched and there were far fewer high-speed lines criss-crossing the continent. These routes (Lignes à Grande Vitesse, in the French jargon) have spread across Europe in the past decade or so, offering speeds up to 186 mph, opening up new journey opportunities by rail and giving airlines some serious competition. Our scheduled four-and-a-half hour journey time from London to Amsterdam would have been unthinkable back in 1994.

We “checked in” at St Pancras by scanning our self-printed tickets on the barrier, and proceeded to the one part of the journey that I definitely wasn’t looking forward to: security clearance. Eurostar, unlike most other international trains, requires its passengers to go through passport control and baggage screening before boarding. It’s far more efficient and less stressful than any airport I’ve used, but it all seems a bit unnecessary. Most other countries are happy to do passport checks on the train, if they are necessary at all. Unfortunately, while our border policy continues to be driven by the paranoia on the front page of the Daily Mail, the situation is unlikely to change.

Eurostar waiting area Robert and Ian

We were through security in just a few minutes and were decanted into the waiting area. This was another fun aspect of the trip – getting to see parts of St Pancras which are off-limits to normal travellers. We had time for a quick selfie before our platform was called and we headed up the travelator to our train. Look how excited I am!

We were both thinking it, but Ian was the first to say it: our train looked quite shabby on the outside. The Eurostar trains are twenty years old and they really do look it. Inside it was clean, but we couldn’t help but notice the odd bit of tattered fabric on the seat covers. We are promised a refurbishment, as well as some brand-new trains, in the very near future.

Eurostar platform St Pancras Eurostar interior

A bilingual announcement informed us that we were on train 9116 to Brussels Midi, via a stop at Ebbsfleet, and that the bar car was offering a wide range of products from Waitrose. Incidentally, “Waitrose” and “Ebbsfleet” sound hilarious when said with a French accent.

Within a few minutes we were off, clattering over the pointwork past the East Midlands HSTs in the adjacent domestic platforms, and quickly picking up speed as we joined High Speed 1. The first twenty minutes or so are quite unexciting, as the line almost immediately plunges into a long tunnel to carry it beneath London. Where it isn’t in tunnel, high concrete walls have been built to protect nearby residents from noise, which unfortunately restricts the view from the train. It was only once we were out in the Kent countryside that a decent view was obtained.

After a brief stop at Ebbsfleet International (one of the plainest, most nondescript stations I’ve ever seen) we quickly picked up speed again. HS1 is built to the same standards as the French LGVs, which means the maximum speed on this section is 186 mph. Watching the countryside zip past the window at this speed is a very pleasurable experience. Part of me does regret that I never had a chance to ride these trains in the days when they were forced to share the Southern Region third rail network. Seeing these super-modern trains threading their way between commuter services must have been quite a sight.

After not very much time at all, the vast Le Shuttle terminal came into view, indicating that the tunnel entrance wasn’t very far away. There was just time for a quick Tweet:

(Does anyone still call it the Chunnel? I think we should bring that name back)

The train slows to a more sedate 100mph for the journey through the tunnel, which takes about 25 minutes. By this point my anxieties had more or less gone away, but I was still very happy when we emerged at the other end, not least because I had my 3G signal back. We zoomed non-stop through Calais-Fréthun station and accelerated again as we joined another high-speed route, the LGV Nord towards our next stop, Lille. This time, when the train manager announced our stop, the French announcement came first.

Lille was our chance to hear the SNCF chime in all its glory:

That jingle needs some proper lyrics (“# Here’s. A. French Train! #” was one possibility I came up with).

That was the limit of our exposure to France. Barely an hour after leaving Britain, we were soon crossing into our third country, Belgium, and the Eurostar terminus at Brussels Midi, where we would change for our onward connection to Amsterdam.

Brussels Midi station Brussels Midi Mural

We had some time to spare, so we briefly stepped outside the station. At one exit, a logjam of queuing taxis and a small group of Belgian police wearing uniforms that appeared to be inspired by Thunderbirds. The other and was more promising: a nice mural on the exterior of the station, and some trams!

We also had a quick peek in the station newsagent, where Ian discovered that the only English-language papers available were the FT and (shudder) the Express and Mail.

We headed back into the station for our connecting train to Amsterdam Centraal. This service is operated by Thalys, a joint venture between the French, Belgian and German state railways. This train instantly impressed with its smart design – just look at it! You can just tell this vehicle is built for speed. We walked up to coach 15, where an attendant scanned the QR code on our ticket and welcomed us on board.

For a brief moment, I thought we’d gone into first class by mistake. The swish interiors offered comfortable seats. Each and every seat had a power socket, something that UK train operators still struggle with. I tweeted some effusive praise which was almost immediately picked up by the Thalys Twitter team.

Ian was slightly less impressed, declaring that the purple seats and red-tinted lights made it look like a bordello.

I heard a lot of English being spoken in the surrounding seats, and was pleased that other British people were following the same route as us, even if most of them seemed to be a good 20 years or so older than Ian and me.

Thalys train Thalys Interior

The first stage of the journey was disappointingly slow, as we used “classic” (i.e. non high-speed) lines between Brussels and Antwerp. After travelling on high-speed lines for most of the distance from London, this now seemed unacceptably slow and I actually started to get frustrated. I was glad once we left Antwerp, at which point we were on the fast line all the way to Schipol airport, on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

One surprise was the appearance of border police as we crossed from Belgium into the Netherlands. I had kept my passport to hand, but Ian had to grab his from his bag in the overhead luggage rack, getting all flustered in the process. Well, it’s hard not get flustered, when a man with a gun is asking to see your papers.

Apart from that, the journey was uneventful. Less than two hours after leaving Brussels, we rolled into Amsterdam Centraal station, right on time. Our fellow passengers disembarked. Ian and I lingered for a moment, perhaps to prolong the experience a bit longer. I have to say that the trip was an absolute pleasure.

Amsterdam Centraal

I’m told that there are people who don’t want the UK to build any more high speed railway lines. Having experienced the ones in Europe first hand, I can now safely say that those naysayers are wrong. High-speed trains in Europe are a joy to use; they are the standard to which UK railways should be aspiring. Let’s build HS2 and help our railway network to compete with the best that the continent has to offer.

In conclusion, the train journey was very easy – much easier than I was expecting. There’s a lot of pros and cons to weigh up when considering train versus plane for these types of journey. The plane is faster, but you then lose some of that time travelling to and from the airport, whereas the train will take you from city centre to city centre. The train also easily wins in the area of baggage allowances – Eurostar does have baggage limits, but they are quite generous. I haven’t done an in depth investigation, but I suspect that the plane will probably be cheaper (though not by as big a margin as you might expect). However, the higher cost of the train ticket will also get you a much more comfortable seat than the budget airlines can offer.

I’m biased of course, so I’m tempted to declare the train to be the winner anyway. I would certainly recommend that people give the train a try. It’s an enjoyable journey which gives you a completely different perspective on the journey. Next time you head out to Europe, why not mosey on over to Eurostar‘s or Rail Europe‘s web sites and see what’s on offer?

Robert at Amsterdam Centraal

Ian’s account of the trip will no doubt appear on his blog, A Railway Runs Through It, in due course.

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4 Responses
  1. Comment by Andrew
    29th March 2014 at 2:55 pm

    hmmm, Plane v’s Train interesting….

    “whereas the train will take you from city centre to city centre” All very well except that in this case your train went via & stopped at Schipol airport anyway! And you had to change trains in 2 city centres, London & Brussels

    baggage allowances – Yeah I admit the train wins – I hope with all that generous baggage allowance you have bought me back some Belgium beer & Chocolate during your brief change of trains in Brussels!

    “Well, it’s hard not get flustered, when a man with a gun is asking to see your papers” – Crickey – well that wouldn’t happen on a Plane – At least I hope not!!

    Sorry the plane wins 🙂

  2. Pingback by A railway runs under it | A railway runs through it
    30th March 2014 at 1:33 pm

    […] Robert’s account of our trip is on his blog. […]

  3. Comment by Graham
    1st April 2014 at 1:07 pm

    I regularly travel across Europe on my holidays by train, this year it’s the barvaria via Switzerland and back home two weeks later on a sleeper from Munich.

    Ebbsfleet a marvellous station 20 minutes drive from home so really convienant.

  4. Comment by a
    25th June 2014 at 1:46 pm

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