14 June 2003 - Somewhere just outside Paris on the Eurostar

Back in the old days, Britain was an island, aloof unto itself, protected from the vagrancies of the rest of Europe by the English Channel and all that water around it. Getting to England from Europe required a boat, and the most popular route was via Calais and a ferry ride across to Dover. To get from Paris to Calais or from Dover to London was another problem to be solved.

Now, Britain is still an island, both geographically and politically, but there is this tunnel connecting it with France and you can take the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris, through the French countryside via Lille, under the Channel and up again into Ashford, England and then into London.

The advantage is that in about three hours you get from the centre of Paris into the centre of London. If you fly, it takes about 50 minutes, but you need to be at the airport at least an hour before the flight, and takes another hour or so to get to and from the airports.

The big disadvantage is usually cost. The price of a single second-class ticket is EUR140. However, there is now a special offer, on limited trains, to travel for only EUR35. Seeing that a plane flight costs about EUR80, it is a stupendous deal.

Travelling on the Eurostar is a little like travelling on normal trains except for the bureaucracy. How on Earth Britain expects to be taken as part of Europe, I don't know. This is the only country since I've entered Europe that have had serious immigration checks, and the only one where I've had my passport looked at not once, not twice but three times. It's checked twice in Paris, once by French immigration, another time by British immigration and then you have to queue up again when you reach London. Does this make sense? No. Does this look like a way forward to a United Europe? No. Do the Brits look as if they're trying their darndest to stay out of it? Yes.

At least the trains leave on time. You wait in a boarding lounge (just like you would for a plane) and there is a queue to get on board (just like a plane) and there are announcements when you're in your seat (just like a plane) and if they're too many trains trying to get into the station ahead of you, you slow down a little (just like a plane).

The seats are a little cramped, but you get a nice tray that folds out to put your AlphaSmart on. I have to say that there is something about train travel that rocks me off to sleep. I have absolutely no problems nodding off on buses and trains.

EuroStar zips through the French countryside at some incredible speed - something like 200kmh, but has to slow down for the tunnel and the English countryside. In fact, they were strongly advertising that train travel the next day would be interrupted by vital works on the railroad that would improve service quality and cut journey times by half an hour. There was a lot of stress on this being work done on the English side, and I like the way that it was stressed as being "improvements" and not as "things we should have gotten right first time round but somehow failed to". A fellow passenger grumbled about the English inability to do things properly first time, and maybe that's the way they should look at joining Europe as well.

Because of problems on the line, the train reached Waterloo station about twenty minutes behind schedule. Add another twenty minutes for immigration. My brother had to actually call me up to find out where I was.

After all that, immigration was a breeze. I thought they would ask me to dig out my plane ticket to prove that I was leaving the country, but that didn't happen. Best of all, Adik was waiting outside and we immediately headed off for a great steak dinner, but that's another story.


posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - permalink
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