Friday, 31 March 2017

Letting the train take the strain

St Pancras station - starting point for international train travel

After my trip to Cologne the other week, I can highly recommend Eurostar as a means of travelling between the UK and northern Germany. My colleagues and I used this option for our outward and return journeys to the Rhineland for the trade show, and found it comfortable, convenient and above all relaxing.

My journey began at Ebbsfleet International; a rather windswept and God-forsaken part of north Kent, close to the River Thames, but handily placed for those of us living in west Kent. I met my colleague from the sales department, at the station, and after passing through security, and passport control, we sat down in the departure lounge to await our train. Check-in times are 30 minutes in advance of departure at Ebbsfleet, but in reality, this could be reduced still further, particularly during off-peak times.

A rather windswept Ebbsfleet International
After boarding the train, we settled down to enjoy the fast and comfortable journey to Brussels. The company had allowed us to book Standard Premier Class which, as its name suggests, is a little more up-market than Standard. There was a meal included in the price, along with wider seats, folding tables, plus power sockets for those wishing to use a laptop.

Had I been spending my own money, then I would definitely have gone steerage, as the meal made airline catering look positively desirable! What’s more there was exactly the same choice of two (cold) meals on the return journey. The extra leg, and elbow room was definitely welcome though, and as we sped across the Medway Viaduct, and then down towards east Kent and the Channel Tunnel, I was really enjoying the journey.

Once through the tunnel, and after a brief stop to pick up passengers at Calais Frethun,  the train headed off, gathering speed as we traversed northern France. The landscape is fairly flat here; ideal tank country in fact and for the history buffs amongst us it is easy to turn the clock back 77 years, and imagine Rommel’s Panzer divisions sweeping all before them in their dash towards the Channel coast.

Thalys train at Brussels Midi
Thankfully we live in far more peaceful times now, and before long we had reached Lille Europe; our  final stop  before the borderless crossing into Belgium. Then, just one hour and fifty-two minutes after leaving Ebbsfleet, our train was pulling in to Brussels Midi station.

We were met on the station concourse by another colleague, who had travelled out on an earlier train, but had stopped off in Brussels for a spot of sight-seeing. I think she was understandably disappointed by the Manneken pis, arguably Brussels’s most famous, but instantly forgettable attractions; although she did manage to enjoy some chocolate and a few waffles.

There was a stop-over of an hour and 20 minutes in the Belgian capital; just time for a coffee, before finding our way to the platforms where the Thalys International trains depart. The Thalys is a service operated jointly between the Belgian, Dutch, French and German railways, along two different routes; one running from Paris Nord to Amsterdam, and the other running from Paris to Dortmund, via Cologne.

On-board the Thalys train
Our train pulled in on time, and after boarding and stowing our luggage, we found our seats and settled down to enjoy the next leg of the journey. For some reason, booking Standard Premier Class from the UK, meant we were allocated seats in first class accommodation on the Thalys. We weren’t complaining and although I thankfully avoided the rather strange-looking snack offered, I was glad of the coffee. It took a while for the train to build up speed, and it wasn’t until we had cleared the Brussels suburbs, that the driver was able to put his foot down.

There were two stops prior to Cologne; the Belgian city of Liege, and Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French), just across the border into Germany. It was dark by the time we arrived in Cologne, but fortunately it was only a five minute walk from the main station to our hotel, where the advanced members of our party were waiting for us in the lobby.

The return journey, early on Friday evening, was pretty much the outward journey in reverse, although as it was still daylight when we left Cologne, we were able to see the countryside in the section through northern Germany and on into Belgium. 

I think it was retiredmartin, who asked about the beer selection on Eurostar trains. I didn’t venture into the buffet car, so I can’t really advise on what is available. On the outward journey I was offered a small bottle of wine with my meal, but when I asked if beer was available instead, the waitress had pulled out a small can of Stella from the refrigerated trolley, and cracked it open before I had the chance to say I would stick with the wine. It did make me realise though, just what a bland beer Stella is.

Homeward bound
Eurostar, of course, also operate services to Paris and Euro-Disney, and also link to other destinations further into France such as Avignon and Bordeaux, via the French TGV network. These long-distance, international trains really are a most civilised way to travel, and with their short check-in times, less stringent security checks, plus the fact they run into the heart of the cities they serve, means they not only beat air travel in terms of convenience and comfort, but they are also quite competitive in terms of price, especially when you factor in the cost of  airport parking.

There is also far less of the herding, or the route marches which accompany air travel; or the mad scramble to board and the waiting to disembark. I can thoroughly recommend this civilised and stress-free means of travel to the continent.


DaveS said...

Yeah, I'm a fan of taking trains where possible. For some reason, I always feel like the holiday has started when I get _on_ the train, but not until I get _off_ the plane.

It's also worth pointing out that the Sourced Market place at the North end of St Pancras does a genuinely respectable range of crafty type beer - not cheap, but probably no more expensive than the cans of Stella from the buffet car. Meanwhile, Brussels Midi is about ten minutes walk from Cantillon, which is _extremely_ handy if you've allowed plenty of time for a connection there and want to pick up a few souvenirs (and are within their admittedly slightly restricted business hours).

Matt said...

If I lived if south-east England, I'd definitely use the train to travel to France, Belgium and northern Germany, but here in the North West you're looking at about three and a half hours just to get to the departing stations, so until HS2 cuts the journey time to London to under an hour I'm stuck with the plane (which is also probably, and ridiculously, cheaper).

Paul Bailey said...

DaveS, I have spotted the Sourced Market outlet at St Pancras on a previous visit to the station. As you say, not particularly cheap, but any port in a storm. Unfortunately my last trip departed from Ebbsfleet, where the only “choices” are WH Smith or Costa Coffee.

The advantage for those of us living in Kent, are accessibility (by road), relatively cheap parking and not having to journey into central (north) London. Ashford would have been my preferred departure point, as it is only 30 minutes by train from where I live. Unfortunately, despite the local council having pushed for an international station right in the centre of town, only one Brussels train a day now stops there, and the station is now something of a white elephant.

Without getting too political, Ebbsfleet was the brainchild of John (Preza) Prescott, and his “Thames Gateway” project which aimed to concrete and tarmac over the whole of Kent side of the Thames estuary. North Kent’s "gain", was Ashford’s loss.

You are correct Matt, that unless you can take advantage of special offers, or book considerably in advance, the train option is usually more expensive than flying. My son and I are off to Düsseldorf in May, and reluctantly have had to abandon our original plans to travel by Eurostar, due to the higher cost. We will now be flying from Heathrow – probably the worst airport to get to, from the part of Kent where we live.