Eurostar walks on water

By Jay Brunhouse

—All Aboard is written by Jay Brunhouse

The high-speed Eurostar train linking London with Paris and Brussels through the Channel Tunnel celebrated its 10th anniversary with a news-making “walk on the water,” and at the same time publicists seized the opportunity to report happy operating results. Eurostar had achieved the highest market share in its 10-year history, a substantial increase in passenger numbers and a significant improvement in punctuality. In addition, optimistic officials highlighted future improvements.

The offbeat ceremony celebrated a decade of service (Eurostar entered service on Nov. 14, 1994) with the floating of a specially decorated, white Eurostar power car on a barge below the Tower Bridge on the Thames River in London on Monday, Nov. 15.

A total of 59 million passengers were proud to have ridden Eurostar in the past 10 years. In the first 10 months of 2004, the train carried 6.046 million passengers, 16.2% more than the same period last year.

Officials attributed much of Eurostar’s success to the faster travel times and greater punctuality made possible by the completion in September 2003 of the first segment of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The dedicated high-speed track in England allows Eurostar to run up to 186 mph on most of the British route, just as it can on the entire Eurostar routes within France and Belgium. Last year also saw the launch of new low fares, starting at US$90 round trip in standard (second) class, designed to compete with low-cost air carriers.

According to figures released by Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, Eurostar’s share of the combined rail/air market on both London-Paris and London-Brussels routes grew in the past year from 64.91% to 67.99% (London-Paris) and from 50.52% to 63.34% (London-Brussels). Punctuality (operating within 15 minutes of scheduled arrivals/departures) in the first 10 months of 2004 was 89.2%, up 13% over the same period in 2003.

In the last year, airline competitors have reduced the number of flights between London and Brussels.

No wasted time

On the fastest schedules, Eurostar takes just two hours 35 minutes between London’s Waterloo International Station and Paris’ Gare du Nord and two hours 15 minutes between London’s Waterloo and Brussels’ South Station. Service is frequent, with up to 16 daily departures in either direction between London and Paris and nine between London and Brussels.

“All these factors — frequent, on-time service, faster travel times and lower fares — have contributed to the ever-increasing popularity of Eurostar in general,” beams an executive. “The convenience of traveling city center to city center, rather than wasting time and money going to and from airports, makes Eurostar tremendously attractive to North Americans trying to get the most out their relatively brief trips to Europe.”

By 2007, engineers will complete the last section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to reduce travel times another 20 minutes one way (40 minutes round trip). At the same time, Eurostar will operate trains out of London’s new St. Pancras International Station, perhaps totally abandoning that Waterloo International Station that it uses presently.

Other significant service improvements already completed or due to be completed soon include refurbished train interiors, new staff uniforms and onboard Wi-Fi capability in all first-class carriages and selected standard (second) class carriages.

Eurostar chose zany French designer Philippe Starck to redecorate the business lounges in London, Paris and Brussels terminuses with new furniture and cabinetry, including warm colors, marble bar table, high aluminum stools and remarkable newspaper holders with a touch of British humor.

Posh interiors

Starck’s new second-class train interiors feature gray and dark brown striped upholstery and new black leather antimacassars to give a “BMW-type” feel. His first class has 2+1 solid gray seats with snooze-friendly pillows and wings to fold out to cradle one’s head.

Other features include new push-button recline mechanisms, sockets (both British and Continental types but not American types) for laptops or for charging cellular phones and new aluminum nonslip tables. The new bar car features wood veneer, jump seats and a curious transparent table lit from below.

The first of the fully refurbished Eurostar sets was put into service on Sept. 7, 2004, and with a spruced-up Eurostar rolling out of FrenchRail’s Hellemmes Works every three weeks, all 27 will carry passengers by October 2005.

Friendly guards help travelers run the magnetic strip on the back of their Eurostar ticket through the automatic entry gate. Then passengers pass through a metal detector and the x-ray unit and clear French and British passport controls before entering the waiting areas. Guards allow passengers onto the platform only 20 minutes before departure. Check-in time is 30 minutes before departure.

First-class tickets seat passengers in first-class reclining seats and give them a complimentary newspaper. While Eurostar approaches the Eurotunnel from London, stewards serve first-class passengers a generous meal at their seats that is included in the ticket price. They receive breakfast before 10:30 a.m., lunch until 2 p.m., collation until 5 and dinner after that. All products are the same regardless of where they boarded.

Standard-class tickets provide seats in second-class carriages and allow passengers to walk to one of the two bar-buffet carriages or wait at their seats for the mobile trolley service. Service personnel accept British and euro currencies.

Lower prices

Spurred by low-cost airlines, Eurostar management introduced dramatically lower prices on July 29, 2004. There are multiple tiers, depending on the class of service and the type of ticket. The full range of fares includes full-fare first and standard class as well as many with advance-purchase and exchange restrictions. The lowest prices on a limited number of seats go to those who book early and those who travel off-peak Mondays-Thursdays. Once the lowest-price seats are sold, travelers receive the next-lower price.

Prices descend from Premium Class costing $425, London to Paris or Brussels, to Full Fare First or Standard class, with progressively lower prices for Leisure Flexi First or Standard, Leisure First or Standard and restricted Leisure First or Standard.

The bottom $90 price applies to Leisure Standard restricted to travel between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays only. In addition, there are special low fares for a Saturday night crossing after 4 p.m. and youth fares restricted to travel between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. any day of the week or at any time on Mondays through Thursdays only. Seniors over 60 and youths under 26 receive 27% off and may purchase inexpensive fares without compulsory overnight stays.

Those with a Eurail product or BritRail Pass receive a 30% to 35% discount when buying first- or standard-class Eurostar tickets. Those with second-class youthpasses qualify for the discount even when buying first-class Eurostar tickets. They each must validate their pass before their trip on Eurostar.

Holders of a France Railpass or 2-country pass including France receive the same discount on Eurostar tickets between France and England. Purchasers of Benelux Tourrail passes receive the same discount between Brussels and England and may continue from Brussels to any city in Belgium without extra charge.

For Eurostar tickets or more information on Eurostar and trains throughout Europe and the U.K., contact a travel agent or call Rail Europe at 1-800-EUROSTAR or log on to

Next month we’ll ride the Palm Express through Switzerland’s amazing Maloja Pass from St. Moritz to Lugano.