Travel: I'm on the fast track for Paris: You can already let a high-speed train take the strain from Calais to the French capital. Stephen Wood went for the ride

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The Independent Travel
There are two railway stations in Calais. One is Calais Maritime, alongside the docks, where the trains meet the ferries and carry passengers on to romantic destinations in southern Europe. The other is Calais Ville, opposite the town hall, from which regular services run to Dunkirk, Lille and Amiens.

But every day, just after 11 in the morning, a sleek grey-and-blue TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) pulls into Calais Ville. In the mean, concrete-slab station, with its three-carriage local trains, the futuristic TGV looks as appropriate as a Boeing 747 at Biggin Hill. It arrives at 11.04 from Paris, graces the station for a little over an hour-and-a-half, then leaves on the return journey.

Since September, as part of its preparation for the Eurostar Channel tunnel service, French Railways has been running this one train per day on a new TGV Nord service from Calais to Paris. Although we have to wait until the summer for the slow and dark parts of The Great Train Ride, the main attraction is already open. So one Friday in November I joined a handful of other passengers in the 366km sprint to Paris.

The TGV does not go the extra mile to Calais Maritime - why help the ferry companies, which are going to be bitter rivals in May - and its high-speed track does not even reach Calais Ville. So, for the first 10 minutes of its journey, the 12.40 to Paris (it left on the dot) pottered along at Network SouthEast speeds; then, at Calais-Frethun, last stop in France before the Channel tunnel, it joined the TGV track.

The difference was obvious. The train gathered speed; the track was smoother, and steeply banked to enable the train (and stomachs) to cope with the fast curves. Just as striking was the quiet ride: trackside poles flashed past at the rate of two per second, but the train was as stressful as a limousine in a lay-by.

Little noises intruded on the silence like the ticking of an alarm clock on a sleepless night. The aggressive hiss of the air-powered sliding doors, the clicking high heels of the woman in mauve tights - even the rustling of newspapers seemed loud. But the passengers tried to respect the library conditions: coughing was polite, conversations whispered. Unlike Italy's tilting high-speed train, the Fiat 'Pendolino', the TGV Nord's seating layout does not ape that of an aeroplane: there are some twin seats for courting couples, but also the traditional groups of four, facing each other - and, at one end, a 'family' compartment of eight seats with its own sliding doors. First-class passengers get bigger seats, more padding and much more legroom.

Even more impressive was the lavatory: there was room to swing a dog in it, and the electric hand-dryer was guaranteed for three years, although I used it for only about a minute.

There is a single stop, on the journey of 1 hour 50 minutes, at Lille. When the Channel tunnel opens there will be a new station on high-speed track, Lille Europe - and most Eurostar trains will go through it at high speed. For now, the TGV to Paris has to pick its way through the maze of suburban lines in and out of Lille's terminus. The 10-minute stop seemed interminable after the dash from Calais; but it takes time to turn the almost empty branch-line special into a packed intercity express. The high-speed service between Lille and Paris started last May, and such is demand on the route that in 1996 it will be operated by doubledecker TGVs.

On the run down to Paris, I sat in the restaurant car with a plastic box of crudites and a filter coffee (cost, pounds 4.) The crudites were good, but I suspect that eating grated carrot and lettuce with a plastic fork is more fun to watch than it is to do. For the last 130km of the journey, the track runs alongside the A1 autoroute, and I watched the cars moving slowly backwards in the fast lane. Travelling at the legal limit, it would take a motorist an hour to cover that distance; it takes 26 minutes by TGV Nord. Considering that the price of a Calais-Paris return starts at pounds 57, and that the motorway tolls alone cost more than pounds 20, I figured the railway passenger gets the better deal.

The 9.14 back to Calais, the following morning, was crowded with cheerful, smartly dressed passengers going to a wedding. But apart from the noise of their conversation, the return journey was familiar: the same swift, comfortable ride, the same cool efficiency.

About 20 minutes out of Paris, a voice announced that the train was travelling at its maximum 300kph. This is 186mph, but it felt about half that.

Just before Calais, the TGV turned away from the high-speed track to clatter on towards Calais Ville - oddly, the line to the Channel tunnel goes up, climbing an embankment to the deserted, hi-tech station of Calais-Frethun, rather than down. Between the two lines is a huge marshalling yard; in it were parked one of Le Shuttle's locomotives and a prototype of the car-transporter carriages. As we approached the station, two passengers synchronised watches and wondered what the Calais taxi-drivers' record was for the journey from Calais Ville to the ferry terminal. At 11.04 they jumped out of the train and ran for the stairs.

I took my time. My car was across the road, and I would be driving from Dover to London. Take a train in back-to-basics Britain? Not after the TGV.

Calais-Paris return fares on TGV Nord start at pounds 57, plus a reservation fee of pounds 5. Seats must be reserved in advance: telephone bookings can be made through the Rail Shop (071-495 4433) open Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat 9am-12pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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