Eurostar from St Pancras, the traveller's experience

Now that London's Eurostar terminal has moved to St Pancras International, a lot of the above writeups are a little out of date.

I recently had to travel to Lille and the people I was visiting suggested I use the Eurostar, as it is preferable to flying. They were right. Or they would have been, had we not had an hour's delay in the tunnel due to power problems.

In response to TheLady (above) who can't see the point of Eurostar, the main selling point of using the rail system is that there is no travelling time to and from outlying airports, and there are fewer delays through security. If one is travelling from an address in London to an address in either Brussels or Paris, then even if the total journey time is comparable, it is less stressful, as one can sit on the train and either work, or talk or do sudoku puzzles for a couple of hours, without having to check the time every few minutes.

In practice, the total journey time on the train is nominally a little quicker than by plane. Although the passenger experience in standard low-fare class is comparable between rail and air, the experience of club class in Eurostar is far more pleasurable than a club class hop from Heathrow (or even London City) into Brussels or Paris.

I have to update Tiefling's ASCII art (above)

St Pancras International
   Stratford International (opens 2010, in time for the London Olympics)
     Ebbsfleet International
         Ashford International
                    \                                             Bruxelles Midi
                     \--}========={---Calais Fréthun----\             /
                                                         \           /
                                                               Paris Gare du Nord

The main London terminus for Eurostar has moved from Waterloo to St Pancras. This means Eurostar trains now run on new trackways, designed to allow trains to run at up to 300 kph (186 mph) from London down to the tunnel.

There are no longer any Eurostar services out of Waterloo International. All London-based international rail services now leave from St Pancras International, which is adjacent to King's Cross station to the north of the main sights of central London. A few trains still run from Ashford down to the tunnel, but this is very much a secondary service.

The new route runs north of the river Thames out to the Dartford crossing and then dives under the estuary slightly downstream of the M25 road crossing and emerges into Ebbsfleet International station. This is a new construction, near the mega shopping centre of Bluewater and the estuarine capital of the Thames gateway, Gravesend. From next year (2009) some domestic trains will run on the new track between St Pancras and Ebbsfleet without going as far as the tunnel. They will take advantage of the high speed trackway to get from London to the Kent commuter belt in record times (around 17 minutes on the timetable).

The new track cuts about 20 minutes off journey times, which means London to Paris in 2h 15 minutes, and London-Brussels in a few minutes under 2 hours. My journey to Lille was scheduled for 1h 20 minutes, but it actually took 2h 18 minutes. According to the scheduled times, there's no doubt that Eurostar is faster door-to-door than flying.

Leaving from St Pancras

It works. It's good. The website recommends passengers get there 30 minutes before departure so I had planned to do that, using a cross-london train from East Croydon directly into the St Pancras complex. Unfortunately, there were operating difficulties, which meant I had to get out at an intermediate station and get a taxi. I arrived at the station complex 15 minutes before the train was due to leave. Fortunately, check-in and security took less than 10 minutes, leaving me free to board the train with over 5 minutes to spare.

The system is set up to feel like an airport, except that the checks are not so stringent. First one uses automated gates to check in. Pass your ticket into a reader and then walk through as the automated gates open. There is enough space to get bulky luggage through as well as a person. This is a train, so there are no checked bags. Another time saver compared to flying.

I was travelling early in the morning (7 am departure), so queues for security were minimal. The machines are less sensitive than airport security. I took all the coins out of my pockets, but was told to keep them. So I walked through the security gate with coins and pens in my pockets and wearing a heavy watch. It did not trigger the alarm, so I was able to retrieve my jacket and case and move swiftly forward to passport control.

French border controls are on British soil, so I had to leave Britain through UK passports and then, 3 metres further on, entered France through French passport control. It was easy and fast, if a little cramped. I did not see if they had a biometric scanner cubicle as they do at some airports.

From there it was up to the platforms and on to the train. For those who arrive early, there are plenty of coffee shops and other places to buy over-priced refreshments. All passengers are assigned seat numbers before boarding (usually when booking the ticket). The coach numbers are displayed on large LCD readouts by each carriage door. They are not as easy to read as one might hope, but passengers should be aware how they identify which coach to use.

The club class experience

I did this once from Waterloo when I had to visit Paris for a night. I doubt the service has changed.

Business class travellers pay more, but unlike European flights where the extra cost never seems worth it, the premium ticket on Eurostar does offer some benefits. I still don't think it's worth enough to pay for it on my own money, but YMMV.

As at airports, you get priority check-in and boarding. There is a business class lounge with free WiFi, free drinks and snacks. Once on the train, the seats are wider, and they have power sockets to run a laptop or DVD player and you get a nice meal with wine thrown in. On these journeys there is time to enjoy the meal, rather than bolting down a smoked salmon sandwich and glass of champagne you might be offered on the 50-minute London-Paris flight.

The station

St Pancras was extensively re-modelled before taking the mantle of Britain's main international rail station. Even before it was re-modelled, it was one of the grandest Victorian train stations, with a high (100 ft high), arching roof offering a 240 ft single span to accommodate many trains. It also has a lovely neo-gothic brick-built facade. When it opened, in 1868, it was the largest enclosed space in the world.

A long time ago, I used to live near the town of Bedford. The main line from Bedford to London arrived at St Pancras. I remember it as a dingy, dirty place, very much playing second fiddle to its more glamorous neighbour, King's Cross.

Nevertheless, I was only a lad and had no appreciation of architecture and history. One of the main attractions of the old St Pancras was the Midland Grand Hotel, which was, at the time, a super-premium luxury hotel. However, it closed in 1935 and the building was used as offices for the railway company. In 1985 the railway abandoned the once-grand hotel and left it to decay, to the point when, at the end of that decade, the building was almost falling down and it had to be shored up.

With the opening of the Eurostar terminal, its fortunes have revived and it is currently being converted into a 5-star Marriot hotel with luxury private apartments on the upper levels.

The shopping experience

I don't really need a lot of retail therapy, but if you like that kind of thing, St Pancras has a lot of it.

There's a champagne bar which has the longest bar in Europe, apparently. It's a disappointment. There's a gastro pub and endless shops. I'm not going to list them all here, but if you go to the website there's a long list.

Getting there

Obviously, a lot of these can be reversed for getting out of the place.

St Pancras International is on the tube network, but under the name of Kings Cross/St Pancras in zone 1. Six lines -- Victoria, Hammersmith and City, Piccadilly, Circle Metropolitan line and Northern converge on the station.

There is also a rail station (duh) within the complex which offers services on the former Thameslink line from Brighton and Croydon in the south and Luton and St Albans in the north.

King's Cross is next door -- literally walking distance away -- which offers services to Scotland and everywhere on the east coast mainline.

It has a large taxi rank and plenty of room for taxis to drop their passengers.

There's a commercial car park near the station, but, frankly, you'd be crazy to drive there what with parking charges, congestion and the congestion charge. Much better to drive to Ebbsfleet and pick up a train there.


Eurostar trains are, apparently, the longest in the world, at about 1292 feet (394m). The train is made up of 20 cars -- 2 power cars and eighteen passenger cars. Altogether, each train can carry 750 passengers; 206 in first class, 544 in standard class. The 20-car train is divided into two down the middle (10 cars either side), so that, in the event of a breakdown in the tunnel, it can be split and the two halves sent out separately.

Apart from the centre split, it is impossible to add or subtract a single carriage, as the wheels and bogies are shared between adjacent carriages.

The cab has only one forward-facing window and the driver sits a long way back. apparently, going through the tunnel at speed for 20 minutes or so can have hypnotic effects on some drivers.

Not only do Eurostar trains have double pantographs -- one for the UK, another for France and Belgium, but they also have trackside pick up shoes to acquire power from the third rail system used in much of southern England.

The nose of the Eurostar is shaped for maximum aerodynamic efficiency in the narrow confines of the tunnel.