For two decades Eurostar has been best known for services linking London with Paris and Brussels, but on this trip Director sampled the short trip from Ebbsfleet International in Kent to Lille, northern France
Over 20 years ago, Eurostar changed cross-Channel travel forever with the launch of direct train services from London to Paris and Brussels via the just completed Channel tunnel. Ebbsfleet International opened in November 2007, following the inauguration of a high-speed line (HS1), which slashed journey times from the tunnel mouth to the new British terminus at St Pancras International, and allowed Eurostar to match the 186mph speeds the French and Belgian sides of the operation had boasted for over a decade.
Located five miles from the M25 at Dartford, northern Kent, Ebbsfleet also offered an alternative for passengers living to the south and east of London, along with regular domestic high-speed services between the capital and Kent. It is now set to become even busier after the chancellor announced last year that it is to become the site of a new 15,000-home garden city.
This, twinned with France’s status as a major trading partner of the UK, ought to point to a prosperous future for Eurostar, which in 2013 carried 10 million passengers for the first time. However, since its inauguration, the proliferation of low-cost airlines has proven a tricky competitor for high-speed rail networks across Europe. Director tests how Eurostar’s service stands up to its winged competitors…
Train: Eurostar 9110 Ebbsfleet International to Lille Europe, Business Premier
Having pre-booked car parking online – £27 for three days – we arrived at the modestly sized Ebbsfleet International at 6am for a 7.08am departure. Set amid green fields, there’s ample parking available at Ebbsfleet (it has 5,000 spaces) and it was a one-minute walk to the glass and steel station to collect our tickets from a queue-free machine. Eurostar’s Business Premier passengers can check in up to 10 minutes before departure. We breezed through security and passport control in three minutes. By passing through French border control we saved ourselves the hassle of waiting around on arrival. Another plus was we wouldn’t have to worry about those strict airline regulations on liquid allowances. Passengers are allowed two pieces of luggage plus one piece of hand luggage.
Lounge and boarding
Having over-estimated the time it would take to clear security, the pristine Business Premier lounge added to our stress-free morning. A concierge asked if we needed anything printed out or photocopied. Leafing through a free magazine (there are a good variety of them on offer) and enjoying our fill of complimentary pastries and coffee from the hotel-style breakfast buffet, we sunk into large tangerine chairs and made the most of the free WiFi. As the digital chime announced the service to Calais-Fréthun, Lille Europe and Brussels, the lounge assistant bade us farewell with the offer of soft drinks and beer to enjoy later. We rode an escalator to the platform and the train pulled in five minutes ahead of departure. At 400 metres long – around 90 metres longer than the Shard is tall – and seating 750 passengers, almost twice as many as two Boeing 747s, the Eurostar is a marvel of the modern age. The train’s exterior was filthy – but we received a warm welcome from a steward who stepped on to the platform, helped us with our luggage and showed us to our seats.
The 39-seat Business Premier carriage was uncrowded. Seats are arranged in a 2+1 formation across the aisle – forward or reverse-facing – with 24 of them set around tables. The seats are 665mm wide with 945mm or 1,945mm of legroom depending if you’re sat behind or opposite someone, and feature a UK and European plug socket and a roomy folding table. With ample storage space for hand luggage, those who crave more legroom will want for nothing. The carriage wasn’t full and many passengers took advantage to spread their work out.
Stewards wearing smart navy suits delivered impeccable service. The complimentary breakfast service began immediately, with a warm mug of coffee appearing almost instantly. A choice of hot or cold breakfast is offered, designed by Eurostar culinary director Raymond Blanc. We went for the hot option: a delicious spinach omelette, sausage, bacon and tomato, served on a china dish with silverware. The carriage interior was spotless but the faded decor failed to excite. While the mobile phone signal in the Channel tunnel is excellent, it doesn’t make up for the lack of WiFi – something that Eurostar will address when it refurbishes carriages this year.
With the train gently decelerating, the train manager announced we were approaching Lille Europe. We took our luggage from the spacious overhead and carriage-end luggage racks, arriving on time an hour and 22 minutes after leaving Ebbsfleet. An escalator took us from platform to station concourse. Without the hassle of passport control or having to wait at a luggage carousel, we were off the train and enjoying the delights of the city within three minutes.
Eurostar carriages need a facelift but the excellent service and astonishing convenience vastly outweighs the superficial problems. The travel is faster and greener than flying – and more fun to boot.
Total score 45/50
Eurostar travels four to five times daily from Ebbsfleet International to Lille Europe. Business Premier prices start from £252 each way. www.eurostar.com