It's Saturday, March 22, 2003 and Eurostar train number 9116 to Lille is scheduled to leave London's Waterloo Station at 0814. That's pretty darn'd early for a night owl like myself so I spent last night in the Mad Hatter Hotel (within easy walking distance of Waterloo Station at the corner of Stamford Street and Blackfriars Road).

Arriving at Waterloo at about 0700, I walk over to the Eurostar terminal and head for the checkin gates. I insert my ticket into the front of the turnstile machine, the gate opens and my ticket pops out the top.

Eurostar and TGV tickets are printed on somewhat stiff paper much like is often used for airline boarding cards and there's a separate ticket for each leg of the journey. If you're a dinosaur like myself and had a Eurostar or TGV ticket in your hand, you'd immediately notice that they're the same size as old computer punched cards and made out of very similar paper. Unlike the old punched cards, there's a 1cm wide magnetic strip that runs down the back of the ticket. The turnstile machine reads this strip as the ticket passes through the machine.
Grabbing the ticket, I enter into the security screening area. It's a lot like an airport screening area except that they Xray all of my luggage as there doesn't appear to be any such thing as checked luggage on either TGV or Eurostar (i.e. all luggage is either carried on or left behind). Clearing security, I then pass through French border controls. It's pretty prefunctory and they don't even bother to stamp my passport.
It's more than I experienced on my first Eurostar trip from London to Paris for which there were no border controls of any sort at any point in the journey. On my second Eurostar trip from London to Paris there were French border control people who moved through the train checking passports. When one of them got to my wife, our child and I, we asked the person to please stamp our passports. The person put their finger to their mouth in the near-universal "shh - don't talk so loud" gesture, moved in close to us and stamped our passports while carefully using their body to make sure that nobody else on the train noticed what they were doing. The person obviously didn't want to have to stamp all the passports in the car.
I've now got most of an hour to kill so I have some breakfast (who'd have ever thought that it would be possible to find a place which makes a typical London restaurant seem inexpensive). As it turns out, the worst is yet to come but that's in the future and right now I've still got about half an hour before my train's scheduled departure time.

Checking out the lay of the land, I find myself a place to sit close to the boarding gate that I'll be using and I settle in to read my book.

Sure enough, before I know it, they announce the train and I head up the ramp to trackside (the Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo is entirely below track level). I find car 5 (there's a liquid crystal display beside each door giving the car's number and, if memory serves, the train's destination). Once on the train, I leave my main bag in the luggage rack and find my seat - number 64. It's a front facing seat and, as it turns out, there's nobody sitting beside me so I've got a bit of room to spread out.

It's still about ten minutes before departure time and there's an announcement saying that all bags in the luggage rack MUST be tagged with the passenger's name and seat number. Naturally, my bag isn't tagged with my seat number and I've got nothing to construct a tag out of. The announcement is repeated at least a half dozen times over the next ten minutes so it sounds like they just might be serious. In the end, I decide to take my chances (my "life of crime" is pretty short and quite successful as my bag is still sitting in the rack when I arrive in Lille).

Finally, it's departure time and we're underway. The track from Waterloo to the channel tunnel isn't designed for high speed trains so the first part of the trip is at a fairly modest top speed of about 100 miles per hour. It's pleasant enough but "nothing special". I settle into my seat (there's more room than one finds on an airplane but the seat doesn't recline). As we travel through some pretty dingy parts of London and then into the English countryside, I think back on how I got here . . .

I'd had a business trip to Reading, England planned for the week of March 17th for a couple of months. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I'd been trying to arrange a visit to a facility in Montpellier for the following week (the "facility" must, I'm afraid, remain nameless). Due to all sorts of reasons, I'd finally managed to setup the visit to the Montpellier facility very late on Thursday the 13th of March. Investigating the alternative ways of getting from London to Montpellier and back with only about ten days lead time, it became clear that travelling by combined Eurostar and TGV would be not all that much more expensive than flying. Since I've been a train buff all my life, the choice was obvious.

I called the Eurostar ticketing office in London from Canada to book my ticket (it was morning on Friday the 14th in London when I called). The process went pretty smooth and I thought that everything was arranged when the ticket agent asked me where I'd like to have the ticket mailed to. I explained that I was going to be traveling (my flight to London was leaving in less than 24 hours) and would like to pickup the ticket at the Eurostar office in London. This was fine except that it meant that I couldn't obtain a reservation or get a firm price on the ticket until I picked it up in London. If I wanted to get a reservation that day and lock in the price then I had to have the ticket mailed somewhere.

Hmmm. The price of 183 UK pounds was about as much as I was willing to pay. Fortunately, I know someone who lives in London and was able to arrange to get the ticket mailed to his home. When I arrived in London on Saturday the 15th, I called up my friend and made arrangements to meet him for supper. I was quite impressed when he handed me my tickets at the restaurant (i.e. they not only have Saturday mail delivery in London but it's actually possible to post a letter on Friday and have it arrive somewhere else on Saturday).

The plan was to spend three days at the Montpellier facility so I'd be travelling to Montpellier on Saturday the 22nd and returning on Wednesday the 26th.

It's been about an hour now and the train is arriving at Ashford International (a Eurostar station in England just before the tunnel). Nobody is allowed to get off the train at Ashford since we've all cleared French border controls (i.e. we're "legally" in France already). A number of folks get on and we're soon underway.

The tunnel crossing itself is basically twenty minutes of "barely adequate book reading light". There's nothing to see and, as we're now on high speed rail, the train has picked up speed somewhat so there wouldn't be much to see even if there was decent light to see it by. I wander down to the snack bar. Guess what - it makes the breakfast joint back in the Eurostar station look like a real bargain. The purpose seems to be to ensure that nobody passes through the tunnel with any extra cash on them.

Hmmm. I buy some chips and an orange juice for about five UK pounds (I could have paid the approximate equivalent of about eight euros (i.e. a little less than nine US dollars)).

There's a trick to surviving in London - pretend that one UK pound is worth about the same as one Canadian dollar (at the time of this trip, one Canadian dollar was worth about 0.67 US dollars). It's not true (a UK pound in March, 2003 is worth about 2.30 Canadian dollars or about 1.50 US) but what costs 1 CA dollar back home often costs about 1 UK pound in London so one either ignores the actual cost or one starves to death. It's really about that simple!

When I travel to London, I'm reimbursed a fixed amount per day for travel and living expenses regardless of what I actually spend. i.e. when I'm pretending that a UK pound is worth the same as a Canadian dollar, it's MY UK pounds and MY Canadian dollars that are involved.

Soon we pop out the other end of the tunnel and we're REALLY in France now. The train continues to pick up speed and a few minutes later there's an announcement that we've reached our maximum speed of 320km/hour. Now 320km/hour doesn't seem all that fast if you look out at the countryside. On the other hand, passing under a bridge when the train zips under a highway is an experience which consists entirely of a "twook" sound and a momentary flash of dull brown. No doubt about it, 320km/hour is FAST!

Even more "entertaining" is when we meet an oncoming train. This experience consists of a medium-loud "twa-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-...-duh-duh-foosh" sound coupled with streaks of the Eurostar gray, yellow and black colours and a noticeable but not all that extreme vibration (each "duh" is a car going by and the whole thing takes a few seconds). Trust me - this is one of the highlights of the trip (even though this is the fourth time through the channel tunnel for me and at least the twentieth time I've had the "meet a train at a relative speed of 640km/hour" experience)!

That bit of excitement over, we arrive in Lille at about 1130 (the timezone has changed so it's actually 1030 London time and it's taken two hours to get to Lille including the stop at Ashford). I'm changing over to a TGV train in Lille so I grab my bags, hop off the Eurostar train and head up the escalator to the waiting area (unlike London, the train tracks in Lille are roughly at ground level although almost completely enclosed and the rest of the station is above ground).

The snack bar in the waiting area would have seemed expensive had I not had the chance to try out the snack bar on the Eurostar. As it is, the prices look pretty good so I buy something to munch on and wander around for a while (my TGV train to Montpellier leaves at 1217 so I've got a bit of time to kill).

If you ever get the chance to change trains (or start/end a journey) at Lille's Eurostar/TGV station (it's called Lille Europe) then I strongly suggest that you try to hang around on the train platform for a while in the hopes of seeing a high speed train go through that isn't stopping in Lille. Watching a train go by at 300+km/hour about twenty feet from where you're standing is an experience that's definitely worth having. Even more fun is to be on that train and trying to identify any physical object at all in the Lille station as you zip through at 300+km/hour!
It isn't long before they call my train and I head back down to the platform (the same one that I arrived on as it turns out). I find car 16 and board the train. There doesn't seem to be a luggage rack anywhere so I jam my (absurdly big) main bag into the overhead rack and settle into seat 86. I'm facing backwards this time (sigh) although I'm sharing a table with three other seats so there's actually a reasonable amount of room.

This TGV train is actually two trains, numbers 9830 and 9833, which are currently coupled together. The pair of trains started in Brussels at 1125 and Lille was their first stop at 1217. We'll be stopping in Charles de Gaulle Airport at 1311 and then Lyon at 1511 where the trains will be split. Train 9830 will continue on to arrive in Marseilles at 1646 after a stop in Aix-en-Provence at 1633. My train, number 9833, will continue from Lyon to stop in Valence at 1553 and Nîmes at 1638 before arriving in Montpellier at 1705 where I'll be getting off. It'll then continue on to Sète at 1723, Agde at 1740, Beziers at 1755 and Narbonne at 1810 before terminating in Perpignan at 1845 (I've no idea why I'm recording this but "now you know"!).

More people get on than get off at Charles de Gaulle, a pattern that repeats itself at Lyon by which time the train is getting fairly full. Shortly after Charles de Gaulle, I take a trip to the snack bar for something to eat (they know that they've got a captive audience and I find out why I've noticed a fair number of people on the train eating their own bagged lunches although it seems to be a bit less expensive than the Eurostar snack bar).

Back at my seat, all four places around the table are now taken and the conversation proceeds much as one would expect between strangers meeting on a train (i.e. fast and light). The catch is, of course, that it's all in French so I spend my time nodding and trying to at least figure out what the topic of conversation is (I'm not very successful).

I've never been any further south in France than Paris before so I also try to watch the scenery (a rear facing seat makes this just a bit of a challenge). We're zipping along at about 300km/hour and since I don't see anything until it's already fading into the distance, I don't really "see" all that much. As we near Nîmes, I do notice that the scenery has changed. We're now going past fields of grape vines, the land is more arid and the colour of the soil is more gray than it was further north. It's only March so the grape vines are just bare branches but it's still a sight that I've never seen before so I try to pay attention.

Before I know it, we're pulling into Montpellier. It's now 1705 so it's been just under five hours since Lille and about eight hours since London. The weather in London was cool and damp with a threat of rain. The weather in Montpellier is really quite decent - not exactly warm but definitely "shirt sleeve" weather and the palm trees (PALM TREES!) make it pretty clear that we've covered a fair bit of ground since morning.

I'm going to skip most of my stay in Montpellier as the purpose of this writeup is to give you a sense of what travel by Eurostar and TGV is like (I may describe the Montpellier experience in another w/u someday). Suffice it to say that I REALLY enjoyed my time in Montpellier and recommend it to anyone. My inability to speak any useful French wasn't a problem as sign language did the trick when words failed. DEFINITELY worth a visit.

There was one development in Montpellier that is relevant to our story. It soon became apparent that I'd be able to spend a very productive five days at the facility in Montpellier. This meant that I had to change my return train ticket back to London. Once it was certain that I'd be able to spend the entire week at the facility, I grabbed the return portion of my train ticket and took the (very modern) tram from near my hotel to the train station late one afternoon. I find the ticket office and get into line. I soon find myself standing in front of a ticket agent who speaks ENGLISH. Excellent!

I explain that I want to return to London on Saturday the 29th instead of Thursday the 27th. It turns out that the mid-morning Saturday train that corresponds to the one that I'm booked on for Thursday has no more seats left at a price which is comparable to my Thursday fare (they seem to sell a certain number of tickets at each level of discount and whether or not you can get a deep discount seems to depend more upon availability than on how long in advance you purchase your ticket; I'm not 100% sure about the details of all this but that's the way it seemed to work). Fortunately, there are tickets available on the TGV train that leaves for Lille at 1446 on Saturday. Unfortunately, it'll cost me an extra 14 euros. Even MORE unfortunately, I have to turn in my entire set of four tickets in order to change my reservation and I've brought only the tickets for the two legs of the return trip. Sigh.

I ask when the ticket office closes and she says that it closes at 1900 (7pm). That's lots of time so I rush back to the hotel, spend a stressful ten minutes trying to remember where I put the tickets for the outbound part of the journey (I'd filed them for safe keeping in a "non standard" place). I eventually find the tickets and head back to the train station.

Hmmm. The long set of ticket agent counters is now closed and it's only 1810. I'm directed to a shorter set of counters which has signs indicating (if I got the translation right) that they were for people with same-day ticket issues. I don't fit that category but I figure that I might as well stick it out and see what happens.

I move through the line fairly quickly and get to a ticket agent by about 1910 (they've been turning people away at the door since 1900 but anyone who's in line gets to stay). Unfortunately, the response to "Parlez vous Anglais?" is "Non" with a smile. I shrug, smile and hand over a piece of paper on which the other agent had written down the plan for the trip back to London starting at 1446 on Saturday (we'd have worked it out without the piece of paper as the fellow was quite friendly but having it sure helped).

He spends a LONG time typing away at his console but he's eventually ready to swap tickets (as near as I can tell, he has to re-book the entire trip from scratch). It turns out that he's found a fare which is 0.10 euros less than the fare that I had originally paid so he opens his cash drawer, extracts a 10 euro-cent piece (i.e. roughly 10 US cents) and presents it to me VERY FORMALLY and with a very serious expression but with a twinkle in his eyes. Excellent!

Like I said, he's quite friendly and the lack of a common language simply isn't a problem at all.

We're done so he hands me the new tickets, I say "merci beacoup" and that's it for that part of the adventure.

The rest of the week in Montpellier continues without incident and I manage to spend way too much money on some really excellent meals while not quite managing to get lost numerous times but that's all part of the experience. I also manage to spend Friday evening in Palavas, a little (in relative terms) fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea about ten miles from Montpellier but, again, that's another story.
Saturday afternoon arrives WAY too quickly and it's time to head back to London on my way home to Canada. I get to the train station about 45 minutes early "just to be sure" as missing this train will mean that I'll miss my flight home Sunday morning which will cost me a couple of hundred dollars for a change fee (maybe I'll tell you the story someday about how an error reading my itinerary resulted in me arriving at Heathrow with a totally non-changeable and non-refundable ticket just as my flight was departing; then again, maybe not).

I've no idea which track the train will be leaving on and it's getting down to about ten minutes before train time and they've still not listed a track for my train on the monitors. I'm not exactly getting worried as I've travelled enough to know that getting worried is a waste of time and leads to even worse mistakes (there's little that can go wrong that can't be fixed and, even though it might be VERY expensive and/or a major hassle to fix, there just isn't a lot of point in worrying about what might go wrong). I am starting to wonder how far and how fast I'll have to drag/roll my main bag but there's not much to be done so I just wait near the sets of elevators that lead down to the platforms.

They announce TGV train 5021 to Brussels at the same moment that the platform number appears on the displays so I hop on the correct elevator and head down to the train level. I'm in luck - there's a sign saying that car 15 will stop right beside the elevator and I'm looking for car 16. I move down the platform a bit and wait for the train to pull into the station.

On the way down from Lille to Montpellier, I'd eventually noticed that there were luggage racks at one end of each car. My problem in Lille had been that I'd gotten on at the wrong end. Armed with this knowledge, I carefully get onto the "correct" end of car 16 and leave my main bag in the rack. A short walk down the car gets me to seat 48. It's facing front which means that I'll be able to see the scenery as it approaches this time (Yeay!). There are no annoying announcements about baggage tagging on the TGV trains so there's not much to do except wait a minute or two before the train leaves (a TGV station stop isn't very long).

We're soon out in the country side and I waste a few megabytes (hurray for digital cameras) trying to take pictures from the train.

Out of about fifty shots, I'd say that about three ended up worth the bytes that they occupy but bits are cheap (and totally recyclable).
It's a fascinating trip as the scenery zips by and I get to watch the not so gradual transformation from the distinctly "Mediterranean" look and feel of the Montpellier area into the almost "Canadian Prairie" feel of Lille (yes, I know, the Canadian Prairie in January is very different than Lille in January but Lille in March isn't all that different than the Canadian Prairie in, say, April or May). There's more to see than ground and vegetation of course. Along the way, I see dozens of towns and villages (each with a prominent and interesting looking church). There's even a chateau or two along the way not to mention lots of fields of grape vines in the earlier stages.

The route is almost the reverse of the southbound journey with stops in Nîmes at 1514, Valence at 1559, Lyon at 1640, Marne-la-Vallee-Chessy at 1835, Charles de Gaulle Airport at 1849 and Lille at 1938. Less than four hours to get from essentially the Mediterranean Sea to the edge of the North Sea!

Arriving in Lille, I grab my bags, exit the car and head up the escalator to the waiting area again. I wander around a bit and grab a bite to eat at the snack bar.

I'm a bit surprised when they announce my train to London almost a half hour before the scheduled departure time of 2039. It's been a few years since the last time and only time that I've taken the Eurostar from Lille to London and I've forgotten that the procedure in Lille when going to London is quite different than the Lille procedure when going anywhere else. In fact, I soon discover that it's even changed since the last time I did it.

The first step is to show my ticket and passport to a Eurostar agent who confirms that I'm booked on the train which has just been announced. I then show my ticket and passport to a British border control person (this is new as the British border control point was in the Eurostar station in London last time). I then go through a security checkpoint (much like I encountered in London at the start of the journey) before ending up in a departure lounge. There's not a lot to see here other than a model of the Lille Europe station so I settle down and dig out my book (never travel without something to do while you wait).

As in London, I've arranged to sit near what is obviously the passageway to the train platform so that when they're ready to let us onto the platform, I'm close to the front of the line (I'm careful to not be rude and to not get in the way of the elderly and other folks who need extra time but I see little point in hanging around at the back of the room waiting for everyone else to proceed through to the platform since there's nothing new left to see here and I might as well have extra time to deal with and see whatever comes next).

As it turns out, there's not a lot to deal with or see next other than a long train platform. The extra time does prove useful as the entry onto the platform is at one end and my car, number 15, is quite a ways down towards the other end.

A medium-to-short walk later and I've found the sign for car 15 so I take a seat and grab my book (I get to spend a bit of time "people watching" which is something that I really enjoy; note that it's "people watching" and not "girl watching" as the point of the exercise is to watch people doing whatever it is that they're doing; it's also a great way to see cultural differences although nothing of note happens this time).

Eurostar train 9161 soon arrives and I get on board. My bag goes in the luggage rack (I just ignore the announcement informing me that luggage tags with names AND seat numbers are MANDATORY) and my body goes in seat 54. The train pulls out on time at 2039 and we're off to London.

As we travel through the French country side, British border control folks are moving through the cars checking passports and such. They ask me how long I'll be staying in Britain to which I reply that I've a flight home on Sunday morning. They ask when I was last in Britain so I explain that I was there a week ago. This leads to me being asked when I was last cleared into Britain by a British immigration person. The answer of "two weeks ago today" does the trick and they move on to the next person.

As we pass through the tunnel, we're also crossing a timezone so the time goes back an hour (i.e. we left Lille at 1939 London time). We slowed down a bit as we entered the tunnel and we slow down again as we come out on the British side and hit the older rail line. There's no stop at Ashford this time so we continue on to London and pull into Waterloo station on time at 2154.

Grabbing my bags, I hop onto the platform and head for the nearest escalator and down into the station. This leads to a long switchback-style ramp that takes me down to the main level of the station (and past the now unused British border control points). Before I know it, I'm out of the Eurostar terminal and heading across Waterloo station to get a taxi back to the Mad Hatter for the night.

It's getting late and I'm flying back to Canada in the morning so it's off to bed although there's one more minor event that I'll relate. As I'm checking into the hotel, I comment to the person at reception that tonight (night of March 29th, 2003) is the night to turn the clocks forward to adjust for British summer time (i.e. daylight saving time). This is NOT welcome news to the clerk as they don't get off work until midnight and have to be back at 0600 Sunday morning. The clock change is going to mean that they're off work for a mere 5 hours and they need to travel home and back again plus sleep during that time! I express my sympathy and call it a night.

I hope that you've enjoyed "coming along" on my round trip Eurostar/TGV journey from London to Montpellier. Although there may be minor errors in the above w/u, this writeup is "factual" - i.e. everything described above really happened (to the best of my recollection).

The purpose of this w/u is to convey some sense of what travel by Eurostar and TGV is like and, I suppose, to make a record of this experience "for the ages".

Thanks for reading it.

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