Advantages fast, frequent trains, affordable when booked in advance
Disadvantages trains getting a little tatty, legroom, limited stations
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|Reliability of trains|
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|How extensive is their Rail Network?|
|How well does it cater for disabled people?|
The other weekend a friend and I went to Brussels for a day to do some Christmas shopping and visit their Christmas market. We had booked our Eurostar tickets way back in September. I had voted for Brussels in December rather than Paris for my birthday in October (mainly due to the fact that I cannot stand Paris - well, Paris is kind of alright, it's the Parisians I have a problem with).Living just inside the M25 motorway in the north, I was highly delighted when in November the Eurostar terminal changed from Waterloo International to St Pancras International. It was a long time coming but finally the UK got its fast track to the continent.
There are other ways of booking but we found that booking on eurostar.com was the simplest and cheapest way for us.
As I mentioned before, I live just inside the M25 corridor and my local train company First Capital Connect offers a quick and convenient way to get into London. Until 8 December you had to get off at Kings Cross Thameslink if you wanted to go to Kings Cross, St Pancras or Euston Station (or continue on the underground train system). Kings Cross Thameslink was a small station located in a side road a few minutes from the actual Kings Cross. It changed when at midnight a few minutes into 9 December, Kings Cross Thameslink closed and the brand new St Pancras International platforms for local services opened. Now you can stroll from the local trains straight through to the new Eurostar terminals without having to walk for more than a few minutes.While Waterloo was convenient for people arriving from the south or south west of the country, moving the Eurostar service to the north of London opens it up for more people to reach, in particular when arriving in the capital from the north of the country. After all, there are three mainline stations in close vicinity plus a large number of underground lines cross underneath Kings Cross/St Pancras.
The new St Pancras station is truly beautifully done up. It's wide open with lots of glass fronted shops and glass ceiling. There is a feeling of space everywhere. It was a shame not all shops were already occupied when we used the station. It would have been nice to have a look in the shops to kill a bit of time. But then again, we arrived at 6 in the morning and I doubt a lot of the shops would be open that early anyhow.The famous 'longest champagne bar' is on the upper level of St Pancras International and you don't normally get to see it unless you take the stairs or escalators upstairs first. You normally stay on ground level and check into the Eurostar departure area.
To gain access you simply feed the ticket into the machine where it is read and then the barrier opens and you are being allowed in. I must admit, the machine does keep the ticket for just long enough to start to panic and think that there might be something wrong but by the time you finish that thought the ticket pops out again.There's airport style security in place where you have to put your luggage, hand luggage and coats on the conveyor belts for x-ray and go through the beeping door frame. All that's left after that is passport control and you're in.
At St Pancras you, again, get the feeling of space with wooden floors and underfloor heating (I assume that's what the openings in the floor were anywhere). There are only very limited shops at the moment, I could only see a WH Smith and Café Nero (which was doing roaring trade that morning) but there was plenty of seating as well as open space to walk in and just take it easy. There is a separate first class lounge if you are lucky enough to have a first class ticket.There are monitors around the departure lounge alerting you to the train departures. When the train in ready for boarding, the doors to the platforms open and you can make you way up the moving walkway to the platform where you train is waiting for you.
It's a shame you have to sit exactly in the seat you reserved but once the train is on the way and you know there are no more people getting on later you can then start moving around and find a better seat (or just find two seats to yourself if you don't want to share.Luggage should be stored at the end of each carriage, if you have any. Smaller items fit above the seat. We only had hand luggage, well I had a handbag, my friend had nothing so we had nothing to store.
The legroom in standard class is not really that great, it's not the most comfortable ride and I something think that local trains have better legroom than the Eurostar ones. Also, after a number of years in service, you can clearly see signs of wear and tear and it would be nice to see the interior refurbished with fresh seat covers and new carpet.
Right on time, the train slipped out of St Pancras station. You barely notice it setting off, it's just when the platform starts moving away that you notice the train is on the way. Announcements are made in at least three languages on the service I was on, in English, French and Dutch (Flemish) due to the train being a service to Brussels with a stop in Lille, France.I had been wondering where exactly the new line was, knowing that London is a built up area and there was really no room to build the new high speed line across the capital. But the train, once out of the station went underground at high speed, so much so that your ears started popping. After only 10 minutes we came out from under London and we were slowing down to stop at the newly built station Ebbsfleet to have more passengers enter. The train was off again and heading fast towards the channel tunnel and the continent.
Compared to how slow the train used to be getting out of Waterloo, it was a delight seeing the landscape shoot past at high speed and within half an hour of or stop at Ebbsfleet we were heading into the channel tunnel.Travelling on Eurostar in general is very uneventful. It's best to take a book, magazine or newspaper or a music player with you. There's a buffet car on the train serving hot and cold drinks and a limited variety of food, muffins, sandwiches, sweets and crisps for example. I would suggest you get what you need before you get on the train, it's probably better quality and cheaper.
After less than 90 minutes the train arrived at its first stop on the continent, Lille. A lot of people got off and very few boarded and without much ado, the train was off again and slipping into Belgium, largely unnoticed apart from the gentle beeping of a number of mobile phones who just received a message from their providers about international roaming.Our train had left London at exactly 7am and it was a couple of minutes before 10am (they are an hour ahead in the rest of Europe) when the train gently came to a stop at Brussels Midi/Zuid station its final destination. It now takes less than 2 hours from London to Brussels and you can shave another 10 minutes off when the train doesn't stop at Ebbsfleet. If you think about it, it takes longer to get to a lot of the larger cities in the UK than France and Belgium now.
There are plenty of shops in the actual station, from pubs and cafés to eateries, shops and even a small supermarket.The departure lounge area opens about an hour before the departure of the trains to London. There is some seating in waiting area but it fills up quickly and you will have to stand or sit on the floor if you are early and you can't get to the departure lounge.
Checking in you show your ticket, go through passport control and security. The departure lounge itself was a lot smaller than London. But then again, Brussels normally only has one train departing every couple of hours while London has a few trains an hour and needs the extra space.While the gates to the platform in London opened exactly 30 minutes before the train was due to leave, in Belgium we had to wait another 15 minutes. They must know what they are doing because everybody was on board and the train left on time. The one thing that I did like on the platform in Brussels were the carriage locators, a little flag indicating where the different number carriages started so it was easier to find.
The return journey was even less eventful than the trip in the morning, we didn't stop at Ebbsfleet on our way back to London. We got off the train, walked all along the platform and the exit is on the upper level, past the champagne bar. You have to use stairs or escalators to get down to ground level again and for us, it was very easy to continue walking straight onto the brand new St Pancras International local train platforms. It couldn't have been easier.
If I had to chose how to travel to Brussels or Paris, I would always chose Eurostar. It's hassle free, takes less time to get to the station and check in and you and up in the centre of the capital without much bother. Flying is not necessarily the best option for these two cities. But not everyone lives close to St Pancras or needs to go to other places in Europe, that's when flying is an advantage. But for a quick Saturday shopping trip to the continent, try Eurostar. Paris and Brussels can be done in a day. There are plenty of trains every day, from very early in the morning to very late at night. Highly recommended, it takes the stress out of travelling.
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