The Eurostar service, which will probably start in July, will link London and Paris in three hours and London and Brussels in 15 minutes longer.
Although fares have not yet been officially disclosed, a senior executive of European Passenger Services, the soon-to-be- privatised BR subsidiary that will operate the service in conjunction with French and Belgian railways, said yesterday: 'This is not an elite service. We will offer passengers a very good service and a very good deal. And people travelling off-peak, say in mid-afternoon in midweek, will get a very cheap fare indeed.'
An Apex return air fare to Paris, booked 14 days in advance with a stay over on Saturday, now costs pounds 108 with British Airways and British Midland. Under a special promotion, BA at the moment has a lowest fare of pounds 83.
Full rail fares for business travellers wishing to go at peak times are likely to be comparable with normal airline fares of about pounds 200 return between London and either capital.
The Eurostar service is likely to start with just one train in each direction a day between London and either capital, building up to 15 per day in each direction in 1995. Late delivery of trains and delays to the commissioning and opening of the Channel tunnel mean there is very little opportunity to test equipment in the tunnel. The tunnel's official opening date is 6 May, but Eurotunnel, its operator, is unable to start full operations until much later this year.
Yesterday's ride from the elegantly refurbished Gare du Nord to Arras, the French tunnel terminal, showed why the airlines have been gradually reducing their fares on these routes in anticipation of the arrival of Eurostar, as they know they will be unable to match the comfort and relaxed feeling of the trains, which will take people from city centre to city centre.
The test train took just an hour to reach Arras, 112 miles away, and the ride was so smooth and quiet that the assembled 200 journalists could have had whispered conversations from one end of a carriage to another.
The huge 400m-long trains, costing pounds 24m each, will carry 794 people, a quarter of them in first class, in 18 coaches. Meals will be served at the table to first-class passengers, while there are two buffet cars - the only ones built entirely in Britain - available for second class.
The first-class accommodation includes a couple of lock-ups with metal rings next to the seats to which handcuffs can be clamped to ensure that lager louts and, more usually, potential illegal immigrants can be detained, albeit in what must be the most luxurious mobile jail in the world.
The test run, which involved the train reaching its maximum permitted speed of 300kph (186mph), had to take place in France on the dedicated high- speed line because the train will be limited to 100mph in the tunnel and in England, where it will share the tracks with South-east commuter trains. To the organisers' satisfaction, the train left and arrived exactly on the dot.
The outside of the train is grey, dark blue and yellow, as the British insisted that the droop- snouted front of the train had to be yellow so that people working on the track would see it approaching.
Although the train is expected to grab a big share of the market for travel between London and the other two cities, security, bureaucracy and a lack of imagination will somewhat constrain the potential of the trains. Passengers to EuroDisney, for example, which from 29 May will have its own station on the French high- speed TGV network, will have to change at Lille rather than be able to travel direct. The Eurostar trains will not go to any destinations in France other than Lille, Frethun, near Calais, and Paris.
They will be unable to travel beyond Paris as they are not powerful enough to tackle gradients on the Paris-Lyons high-speed line fast enough not to disrupt the line's schedule.
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