Simon Calder: Travel

Simon Calder
Friday 10 October 1997 23:02

When a Citroen 2CV overtook the Eurostar train somewhere near Maidstone, the British contingent buried heads in newspapers and pretended that a woefully short-sighted transport policy was nothing to do with them.

If you have not yet travelled on a Channel Tunnel train from Paris to London, this is how it goes: Paris to Calais, 186mph all the way (that is not a figure you need to remember; the "train captain" will remind you of it in a tone only one stop short of an outright gloat about French supremacy). Calais to Folkestone, circa 100mph, now that the fire damage has been repaired. Folkestone to London - whatever speed Railtrack will allow it to crawl through Maidstone, Otford and Penge on lines built 150 years ago. Don't expect anything in three figures.

Aboard the 6.37am grande vitesse from Gare du Nord to Waterloo, about the only kind of vehicle that didn't overtake us on the British stretch was a milk float.

This was my first trip on Eurostar, despite my living five minutes' walk from the terminal at Waterloo. In the three years since services began, I have always been able to find an air fare to Brussels or Paris for less than the cost of the train. (Since we pay the full price for all travel, this is an important consideration). But finally I bit the pounds 119 bullet train. And a most pleasant journey it was, too, despite some imaginative prices in the buffet; not even British Rail dared to charge 80 pence for a packet of crisps. But I challenge the received wisdom that city-centre- to-city-centre journeys are faster by train than by plane.

I reckon it is possible to travel from any point in London to any point in Paris or Brussels more quickly by air than by rail. People who say "Oh, but Eurostar takes only three hours from the middle of London to the middle of Paris" conveniently overlook the fact that you have to check in for Eurostar at least 20 minutes ahead, and that neither Waterloo nor Gare du Nord could be described as being the centre of its respective capital, except by an over-enthusiastic estate agent.

To give Eurostar the benefit of the doubt, though, let's assume that they are. I still reckon it is possible to get from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord by air, using ordinary public transport. And to back up the claim I've put Air Miles where my mouth is, and have bought two return tickets to Paris, travelling in a couple of weeks' time. My colleague Harriet O'Brien will take the train. She has nominated the days and departure times: we shall depart simultaneously from the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo next Friday afternoon. The slowest one to reach the Gare du Nord buys dinner.

Speed isn't everything, though, and we shall also evaluate the quality of our journeys. So each of us has a checklist of things to achieve: go for a walk, make a friend and have an exotic drink. Trickiest of all, we also have to write our accounts of the journey in real time.

The train I caught was about 10 minutes late, which in the operator's books makes it on time. One of Eurostar's advertising boasts is punctuality - that six out of seven of its services arrive at the appointed time. But when you look more closely at the statistics, you learn that a train is defined as "on time" if it is no more than 15 minutes late. This is the same definition of punctuality as used by airlines, but we travellers are not allowed such latitude. Try turning up 15 minutes late for a plane or train, and see if the reciprocal reasoning works.

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