Paris to St Pancras: a two-hour rail trip

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The moment was loaded with symbolism. Exactly half way through the Channel Tunnel yesterday, unobserved by their passengers and the rest of the world, Francis Queret handed the controls of Eurostar 3223 to his British colleague Neil Meare and with it a small but important piece of British national pride was restored.

From that moment Mr Meare was able to drive his train at full speed all the way back to his destination in London – something French drivers have been doing in their country with trademark Gallic nonchalance for the past 13 years.

By the time the train and its invited 400 passengers pulled into the new St Pancras terminal, two hours, three minutes and 39 seconds after departing Gare du Nord, the two drivers had set a new record for the Paris to London run, shaving 30 minutes off the current journey time and 12 minutes off what will become the schedule when the new high-speed link comes into full service in November.

Posing for the cameras, as a welcoming brass band struck up the "King's Hunting Jig" beneath the soaring heights of William Barlow's imposing railway shed, the two men agreed it was a milestone moment not just in the development of the British railway but also a new high in Anglo-French co-operation.

"I felt very proud; it is an honour to be the first one into St Pancras. This is a record that will never be broken" said Mr Meare.

M. Queret was even more fired with optimism. "It feels very, very good. I am very satisfied we have achieved our objective. Now anything is possible," he said.

It has taken nine years and cost £5.8bn to complete the last 68 miles of the high- speed rail link that brings London and Paris into the sought-after "two hour club" of major European cities linked by fast modern rail lines.

No longer will travellers soar through the Pas de Calais at 200mph only to judder to a crawl on arriving in Britain where they can, as President Mitterand once sarcastically pointed out, enjoy the Kent countryside at their leisure.

For the French too, there are positives. They will no longer suffer the ignominy of having to disembark at Waterloo, a station named after the most notorious military defeat of their greatest general, while the imminent completion ends what has become an irritating wait for the dream of city-to-city high-speed rail travel to become a reality between Paris and London.

During the inaugural journey yesterday, Eurostar touched 200mph at its swiftest point as it crossed the Medway and sped towards the Thames. There it entered a tunnel emerging just a few minutes later in the vast construction site of the old King's Cross goods yard.

The drivers believe they would have been able to shave another two minutes off their record time, taking it tantalisingly close to the two-hour mark, were it not for speed restrictions near Calais caused by subsidence.

Eurostar, an unincorporated joint venture between Britain, France and Belgian rail companies, hopes to carry 10 million passengers by 2010 – two million more than this year but nowhere near the 20 million it was once claimed would use the service. Yet the British chief executive Richard Brown believes his is a business whose time has come.

Addressing a champagne reception at the Pavillon d'Armenoville in Paris on the eve of the record attempt, Mr Brown trumpeted the environmental credentials of rail over air and poured scorn on the day-to-day experience of plane passengers compared to those happy to let the train take the strain.

His confidence is based on the fact that the station at St Pancras puts high-speed rail travel within the reach of the majority of the British population who live north of London. Another station at Ebbsfleet in Kent will bring the service closer to 10 million potential customers in the South- east.

And more is to come. A new high-speed service linking Brussels and Amsterdam will bring the Dutch city within four hours of London.