New Eurostar Service Takes Off

080226_st_pangras_station_eurostar.jpgWith several weeks of travel now under its belt, the new Eurostar train service between continental Europe and London’s revamped St. Pancras International has been a resounding success.

According to The Times, of London, ticket sales have spiked 20% since November 14, 2007, when Eurostar trains began using the renovated station, which replaced Waterloo International as the London terminus. Along with the new home base, Eurostar is now racing along at higher speeds, as it inaugurated use of High Speed 1, the UK’s first-ever high-speed rail line. This development significantly reduces overall travel time and improves punctuality.

The new single-rail segment of the route, which reaches from St. Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, cuts down travel time by at least 20 minutes. Trips between London and Paris now take just 2 hours and 15 minutes. Rides between London and Brussels last under two hours. Rates have stayed steady, starting at £59 for a one-way trip between London and Paris or Brussels.

If you’ve ridden Eurostar before this switchover, you’ll likely remember the slower pace on the English side of the Channel. You could gaze at British farmland out the window, but dramatically speed along while in the tunnel or in France. No more countryside tootling now — Eurostar trains can blaze at their top speed of 186 mph.

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The New St. Pancras International

St. Pancras International has also had a remarkable rebirth. The Victorian station that spent decades as a derelict hulk is now a gleaming, atmospheric triumph. By transferring services to St. Pancras International, Eurostar gained more connections for travelers. St. Pancras connects with six major Underground lines and seven domestic rail lines.

080226_st_pancras_station_eurostar3.jpgBut thoughts of convenient connections will likely melt away once you get a look at the transformed heart of the station. It’s simply stunning. The landmark’s train shed is a vast arc of iron and glass, filtering daylight into the halls below. It reaches over 240 feet and measures 100 feet high at its apex — when it opened in 1868, it was the largest enclosed space in the world. The restoration is impressively faithful; for instance, the massive arches were painted bright blue, as the original architect, William Barlow, intended. The best way to check the time? On the elegant recreation of the station clock, by the original manufacturers, Dent.

The station’s facade is an elaborate red-brick confection, with spires, carvings, and Gothic arches. Now cleaned and repaired, the brick has a ruddy glow.

The station did undergo a significant change, though. The lower level, which was originally covered and used for storage, has been opened up and transformed into a shopping and café concourse. (If you come into the station via the Underground, you’ll enter on this level.) The lower floor was first built for warehousing enormous Burton beer barrels; now it’s the place to go for cappucino…or a pint.

The boutiques, pubs, and eateries are still filtering in, and so far there are no golden arches. Happily, the stores are mostly filled by British companies like Foyles bookshop and Boots pharmacy. By carefully adapting certain design elements and materials, down to the Gothic-style door handles, all the public spaces feel unified and graceful.

Two statues punctuate the train shed floor. One, a supersized bronze sculpture below the station clock, shows a couple in a clinch. The other shows the famed poet Sir John Betjeman, who was a vocal advocate for the station, craning his neck to look at the dazzling glass roof.

080226_st_pancras_station_eurostar2.jpgAnother highlight is the train shed’s Rendezvous, the longest Champagne bar in Europe at 295 feet, where you can watch the trains glide by nearly at your elbow. And you won’t get the shivers while sipping chilled bubbly, even on a blustery day — the banquette seats have built-in warmers. Now that’s a bit of all right!

The Green Scheme

Eurostar credits some of their growing popularity on the public’s environmental awareness. The carbon dioxide emissions of a Eurostar trip are ten times less than those of an airline flight between the U.K. and continental Europe.

As they kicked off quicker service, Eurostar also pledged to create carbon-neutral journeys by offsetting their CO2 emissions with carbon reduction programs. Going further, the company is researching ways to reduce each journey’s carbon dioxide emissions by 25% by 2012. With the new Tread Lightly program, they’re ramping up recycling and other green efforts.

What’s Next?

Parts of St. Pancras are still in progress. For instance, a farmers’ market is due to open later this year. Most impressively, the grand old red-brick station hotel is being overhauled by Marriott and will once again be a hotel, plus luxury residential apartments. The new property is expected to open in 2010. Several other major commercial and residential developments have gotten underway in the surrounding King’s Cross neighborhood, which will continue over the next several years.

Jennifer Paull

Your Experience?

Have you traveled on Eurostar since the grand reopening, or visited St. Pancras International? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience. Share your stories in our Talk forum.