I’ve just completed the first leg of the trip – an incredibly quick 1 hour 10 minute trip from Ebbsfleet International in Kent to Lille Europe in France, via the new ‘it took us decades longer to do it, but we got there eventually’ high-speed rail link. It’s definitely worth the wait.
Ebbsfleet International is an interesting station. What is Ebbsfleet? A very small place, that’s what it is. It seems to be a small village, ever-expanding with its new found fame and glory as the gateway to Europe. A housing developers dream. Now you too can work in France and commute every day. But that might not appeal to you because [insert stereotypical French joke]. But it does have a football club – Ebbsfleet United. Not sure if their home ground is actually in the village but they do have a great player in the shape of… Neil Barrett.
Seriously though – move your family here and you’ll have no excuse when the kids pester you to go to Disneyland. It’s now do-able as a (long) day-trip.Anyway back to the station and in summary – it’s nice, but there’s not much here. I wasn’t expecting something like Heathrow Terminal 5, although Ebbsfleet does have one advantage – you keep hold of your bags at all times. I was expecting a selection of shops, a place to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by while waiting for your friends and family to arrive. And there is a bit of that, but not really for passengers once they’ve checked in.
It’s an impressive, futuristic site – and it really does look great, but after the passport / customs stuff it’s got about as many facilities as Maidstone East. Before going ‘railside’ (I made that up) it’s got a Bureau de Change, an eating bit and a couple of shops.
After you go through with your ticket, you get your bags scanned and also French Immigration are here to check your passport. Like with the Eurotunnel car services, that’s an excellent way of doing things. It means there’s no hold-ups at the other end.
Once through, you are in the ‘waiting area’ with a magazine shop, a take-away coffee shop and some benches. And a big door, which opens when your train is about to arrive so you can rush down the escalator and stand on the platform – the exact place your carriage’s door will arrive is marked with funky futuristic arrows on the platform.
When doing something new for the first time, I still get that great feeling of anticipation when the hairs on the back of your neck really do stand up. I think it was a mixture of the train ride and the trip ahead. It may also be the fact that five minutes before the train arrived, on the non-stopping track, just a few feet away, a ‘fast train’ went past – very fast. These trains travel at over 180 miles an hour when they get going. The anticipation was built up even further by the platform announcement (which was crystal clear!) that ‘the train will only stop for two minutes, so board quickly’. The queue of people behind me had to get on the train and load all their bags into the luggage racks inside the doorway – all in two minutes. And they just about made it. Maybe because the excitement got them moving. Or maybe because if they didn’t get on, that’s a lot of money wasted.
And the journey itself did not disappoint. This was only my second trip on a Eurostar passenger service – the last time was about six years ago. The difference was massive. Living in Kent I was looking forward to seeing all the usual sights – but if you even spend time thinking about wanting to blink, you will miss them. We were over the Medway bridge in five seconds. Five seconds! Try doing that in a car. Well don’t actually try it, it’s very illegal. After running parallel to the M2 in the Medway area the train dips southwards to run alongside the M20 for quite a while. Great to watch you going well over twice as fast as those cars, slowly bankrupting their owners through petrol prices….. Ah, I’ve got to drive around Europe in an hour or two….After the M20 you go straight past the Eurostar car / freight terminal (many a trip to Calais has started here for me) and then you see in the distance, the big hill with the two big rectangular holes carved right into it. And you’re inside that hill and rapidly descending beneath the Channel within a few seconds. I think it took about 22 minutes to get from Ebbsfleet to the tunnel mouth.
After 20 minutes, it’s back into the open – through nice, smooth, round holes (why the difference?) and past Calais into open French countryside. I don’t know about you, but for me these sorts of journeys seem very surreal. On a cross-channel ferry, the brain has something easy to use to register your trip outside of Britain – the water. You can see yourself heading away from the white cliffs of Dover to the, well…. Calais. But on this journey, you just go underground and then you’re in France. Still seems a bit strange, but still a great achievement of the modern age.
Lille Europe rail station is bigger than Ebbsfleet – there are of course other rail services going through here – and after an obligatory croissant and café crème, it was time to pick up the car. I asked for something spacious for me, all the luggage and other bits and bobs and they didn’t disappoint. It’s an Opel Zafira (known to us Brits as a Vauxhall Zafira). Not bad at all – and it’s diesel. At the time of writing, diesel is more expensive than petrol in the UK but in some countries in Europe it’s the other way round, so that will help on the cost.