At Brussels Midi-Zuid train station, I follow the signs to Eurostar‘s check-in area, where I print my boarding pass at an 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 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 removed from their cases, liquids are allowed onboard the train, and everyone is friendly and relaxed.
We are called to the platform about 10 minutes before departure. Many of the European businessmen and affluent 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 Premier 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
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.
We reach our “cruising” speed of 186 mph as the freshly plowed, brown farmland and the tentative green branches 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, our only stop between Brussels and London.
After a five-minute rest, we glide out of Lille, and carriage attendants serve a complimentary cold snack and drinks, including wine, to the six passengers in the Standard Premier carriage. Most of the other passengers seated in the less expensive Standard carriages, which offers only food-for-purchase or the more expensive Business Premier carriage, where a full, complimentary hot meal, Champagne, and Wi-Fi are available.
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.
After we depart 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.
Then 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 can even finish the magazine article I’m reading, the black 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.
We’ve arrived in England. The terrain in the Kent countryside is hilly, with more trees than in France or Belgium. As the suburbs of south London come into view, I know that this comfortable, enjoyable ride is almost over.
In another 30 minutes we pull into St. Pancras International, the 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).
Large Olympic Rings welcome passengers to St. Pancras Station — a reminder, in case anyone needs it, that London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
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, fewer weather delays, and a more tolerable security system give Eurostar an edge in the important city center-to-city center time factor.
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.
Eurostar also has bigger ambitions than just ferrying passengers under water between three big cities. The company is rebranding itself as it pushes to become a larger presence in the European rail market, with a new logo and hopes of expanding into the south of France, Germany, and the Netherlands, with new equipment and on-board enhancements.
I’ll look forward to these developments — and to revisiting Eurostar again very soon.