PARIS--There's something amazing about taking the train from London to Paris in just two-and-a-half hours.
To be sure, it's been possible to make that trip since 1994, but if you've never done it before, stepping onto a train in the middle of the British capital and stepping off in the center of the French capital is totally cool.
I've been traveling to Europe since 1979, and I'd crossed the English Channel by boat back in the mid-1980s, and by plane in the 1990s. Going by fast train was always one of those abstract things that didn't fit my image of what was really possible.
But last month, as part of Road Trip 2011, I finally got the chance to take the Eurostar, the famous train that goes from London's St. Pancras station to Gare du Nord in Paris--a terrific journey that for the first time in my personal experience, makes traveling between the two cities about as easy as can be.
For those who haven't made the trip, an obvious question is why you'd want to take Eurostar when you can fly between London and Paris in about an hour and a quarter. The answer, of course, starts with the fact that Eurostar leaves and departs from the hearts of the two cities rather than requiring time-consuming and costly travel to their suburban airports. And then there's added time for airport security, the limits on what you can bring, and other annoying inconveniences.
My Eurostar experience started with pulling up to St. Pancras International station in London--with its beautiful red brick Gothic facade built in 1865. And then it was into the giant train shed, inside of which these days a huge set of multicolored Olympic rings dominate the space (since London will host the Summer Games next year).
It's not that there's zero security to go through before you take the Eurostar. In fact, unlike with just about every other train you could take in Europe, you have to show up about 30 minutes before departure, and put your luggage through a metal detector. But once you do, you're quickly on the train and ready to cross the Channel.
And while the London to Paris (and vice versa) Eurostar route gets all the ink, you can actually take the line between three different stops in England and six on the mainland (five in France, plus Brussels). And these days, Eurostar is promoting the idea that the Eurostar is a great way to get not just between cities it directly serves but also connecting cities. So, for example, you could take Eurostar from London to Brussels and then switch easily to a second train and continue on to Amsterdam.
Riding the train
If you've ever ridden trains around Europe, you'll find the Eurostar experience quite familiar. For me, the rails have long been the preferred method of traveling the continent, and I was expecting a very simple trip.
As mentioned, because there's some security to navigate, you have to show up 30 minutes before departure, unlike with most European trains. But the security regimen is more or less akin to what you would have encountered at any airport pre-9/11. Once through, you wait for a bit, and then you trundle on board the train with the hundreds of others you'll be traveling with.
One thing I learned was that it's good to be there on the early side, and to be ready to get on board before the rest of the passengers. That's because it quickly became clear that the train was not particularly well set up for handling large suitcases. And because I was one of the last to get on, I had to stash my luggage in the next car. The overhead racks simply weren't big enough to handle my bags--and that, I think, was a reflection of the fact that the Eurostar, being a bullet train, is streamlined and simply doesn't have much luggage space up top. On the other hand, that means it can speed through the Eurotunnel at 100 miles an hour.
The upshot was that the Eurostar, at least in second class, ranked below most of the other trains I rode during Road Trip 2011, given that it was packed, had tight seating, and a shortage of storage.
Still, pure comfort is not the real point of the Eurostar (though you can pay for more comfort by buying a first-class seat). Obviously, the real point is to get from London to Paris quickly, and with a minimum of hassle. And in that regard, there's surely no better way to make the trip.
Once we departed St. Pancras, we rolled very smoothly along the British railroad tracks. I have to admit that this was one of the smoothest train rides I can recall. You can barely feel the standard clickety-clack of the rails, and having ridden so many trains, I was acutely aware of how smooth it was. Looking out the window, I enjoyed the mesmerizing spectacle of the English countryside speeding by.
Then it was into the Chunnel. It's dark inside the passageway--which is shared by Eurotunnel's own fleet of passenger and cargo trains. As we sped through, I could imagine seeing our train displayed on the huge digital control-room board inside the Eurotunnel command center that I'd visited during a Road Trip stop a week earlier.
Emerging from the tunnel at Calais, it was quickly a different experience. On the French rails, the high-speed train rocked back and forth, sometimes quite sharply. It had taken just 24 minutes to cross beneath the channel--slightly longer than the advertised 20 minutes, but still quite rapid. And then it was about 75 minutes until arrival in Paris.
And suddenly the trip is over. You're in Paris. You step off the train and you're right in the thick of things in the French capital. No need to take a separate train to get into town: you're already there.
Ultimately, it became clear to me that for just about anyone wanting to get between London and Paris, there is no better way to do it than to take the Eurostar. To be fair, there are cheaper ways to make the trip--mainly the many budget airlines that connect the two cities. But as noted above, those methods come with their own inconveniences that may well offset the lower price.
And now, having taken Eurostar, am I still impressed that you can get between London and Paris by train in two-and-a-half hours? Without a doubt. And I would happily do it again. Just with a little less luggage.