M'colleague and I chanced upon a last minute trip to Paris and back, travelling on one of Eurostar's new e320 sets. These new Siemens Valaro variants are 400m long, seat 902 passengers in sixteen coaches with an electric loco at each end. They're categorised in the UK as Class 374s and replace the now ageing e300s, or Class 373s - a number of which have traversed the metals through the LEYTR area in times past when they operated on loan to GNER, running services between London King's Cross and Leeds.
The '374s' started being rolled out from November 2015 and from our observations from travelling recently, they're now the majority traction type between London St. Pancras International and Paris Gare du Nord.
While I headed south to 'that London' from the LEYTR area - on board one of Hull Trains' Class 180 Adelantes, m'colleague headed to London from Ramsgate using one of Hitachi's Class 395 Javelins, operated by Southeastern which use the CTRL (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) or HS1 at it is more commonly known.
My trip from Grantham station was the first time in many, many years that I'd opted to travel with Hull Trains. It can be easier to travel with VTEC or Great Northern from Peterborough, though the promise of Grantham to London non-stop in around an hour was too much of a pull, especially on a day when we'd be touching 186mph (300k/h) on numerous occasions during the same day. The Hull Trains '180s' are wearing well, save the odd section of gaffer tape covering tears in the carpets here and there, and the leg room in Standard was more generous than I'd expected. The TV screens in each coach were working and showing, as advertised, the weather at the next stop (London), today's news headlines, progress along the route and onward connections from the next stop. With this being King's Cross, many of the connections were pointless and few would be travelling north from King's Cross, although the Underground service statuses were likely to be useful.
Hull Trains 180109 is seen upon arrival at London King's Cross, next to a VTEC Mk 4 DVT
Yet while my '180' (180109 - as featured on the cover of this year's LEYTR) had a top speed of 125mph and m'colleague's '395' an impressive 140mph (225k/h), I'd be averaging 91mph over the 105 miles from Grantham to London, whereas m'colleague would be averaging just 60mph over the 80 miles from Ramsgate to London - and this with a large percentage of his journey being along HS1. Yet drilling down shows the 'classic lines' section hampering overall average speed: the first 24 miles being on the 'classic' lines and with five stops, averaging 38mph, thereafter (from Ashford International) the pantograph was raised and the train ran non-stop to Stratford International (50 miles) at a whopping average of 107mph.
M'colleague benefits from being an employee of a TOC and is afforded a sizeable discount on international rail travel through a FIP card (issued to rail staff after one year's service). His return fare to Paris totalled £75, comprising Standard on the outward leg and Standard Premier on the return. The public walk-on fare for an equivalent ticket was £338. There are now three classes on Eurostar services - Standard (10 coaches), Standard Premier (3 coaches) and Business Premier (3 coaches). Complimentary food and drink are offered in both Premier classes, though the Business offering comes with menus designed by a Michelin Star-rated chef and unlimited hot drinks. Standard Premier affords travellers an airline-style tray of food, wine/beer, tea/coffee and water.
As a comparison to the £388 walk-on return fare, Skyscanner showed the cheapest London to Paris fare to be £120 for travel tomorrow. Public transport costs need to be added for airport transfers, of course, (an estimated £40 minimum) but even at a total of £160 this is considerably cheaper than Eurostar's walk-on fares. However, if you opt for Business Class on the plane then the walk-on fare increases to nearly £500. That was the cheapest and returns were from differing Parisian airports. A fully flexible non-discounted Eurostar Business Premier fare is £490 and includes a premium meal. I doubt whether a plane can offer that experience on a flight of such short duration.
Congestion in the Welewyn area saw my arrival in excess of 10 minutes late (an emergency speed restriction was also blamed for the delay) and having met m'colleague who was mid-conversation with the returning Hull Trains driver at the buffer stop of Platform 5 (it's a railway thing!) we headed next door to St. Pancras to check-in - a process that, in my opinion is flawless. The barcode on your ticket grants you access to the check-in hall, and after you've been through British Border Force for a passport check you're brought to the security hall and the obligatory airline-style baggage scanner. As m'colleague discovered, an Apple Watch will set off the manual detector, necessitating a full body rub down to make sure nothing was being sneaked through.
In a nod to the airlines, Business Premier passengers have their own departure lounge and complimentary food and drinks, while everyone else waited in the main waiting area, with plenty of exorbitantly-priced snack shops to spend your money in; £1.89 for a bottle of Buxton water, for example.
Eurostar's e320s are allocated a TOPS number 374 in the UK, though in reality the trains do not show this. Their set number is in the 4xxx series (the e300/373 set number is in the 3xxx series)
The departure platform was notified just ten minutes before departure and so there was something of a dash up the travelator to the platforms above. At St. Pancras International, platforms 1-4 are used by East Midlands Trains, 5-10 for Eurostar departures/arrivals, and 11-13 are utilised by Southeatern's High Speed domestic services. Beneath the station are platforms A and B which see Thameslink services calling, bringing passengers as far afield as Gatwick, making St. Pancras an ideal locality for international services - far easier to reach by so many different modes of transport than Waterloo is, which is where Eurostar services previously used as their London terminus.
Class 374 sets are built to European loading gauge standards - they are quite visibly larger than the '373s' they replaced - and can seat 150 more passengers than their predecessor. They are 16 vehicles in length compared with 20 of the Eurostar (18 coaches plus 2 power cars). Legroom at table seats in Standard was poor - the '374s' retain the narrow table with extendable sides, making the interiors seem a little more spacious than they probably are. That said, 'cramped' would be a little unfair, but the interior was certainly devoid of any embellishments.
Old meets new. The more pointed front of the '373' stands out against its younger counterpart. Those wishing to travel on these earl-1990 stalwarts should book for Brussels as the '374s' have yet to be introduced here. 4008 (left) was our chariot to Paris
Our 1224 departure was punctual (following an announcement in English and then French). The high speed line starts just 1km from St Pancras and Stratford came and went in a flash. We were soon slowing for our only stop at Ebbsfleet International to pick up more passengers. With the line speed now 186mph (300k/h) no more than 15 minutes was required to get to Ashford, soon after which we began slowing for the Channel Tunnel. There were no special announcements to tell us this was happening and entry into it was quite muted. We had slowed to around 50mph shortly before entry - we would be slotting in with Eurotunnel 'le shuttles', which are slower to accelerate and limited to 87mph (140k/h). Eurostars are permitted 99mph (160k/h) through the Tunnel, giving us a transit time of 20 minutes for the 50km long dive under the English Channel.
Interestingly, m'colleague's iPad was still recieving a decent signal from O2 inside the tunnel but his iPhone had no signal from Three. This brings me to the on board Wi-Fi. It is essentially poor, patchy at best.
Emerging from the Tunnel we could clearly see the huge loop for Eurotunnel trains diverging to our left and we were soon passing the little-used station of Calais Frethun. It was only then that we began to reaccelerate towards our maximum 186mph cruising speed. The line is relatively flat between Calais and Lille. There are a few climbs and dips and because of our speed these were quite noticable. Passengers walking through to the buffet car were holding on - its definitely not as smooth as travelling at 125mph on the ECML! We began slowing for our transit of Lille station which is underground and has a speed limit of 200kph. It is here where trains diverge towards Brussels. Once clear of the area we reaccelerated to our 186mph line speed but the line is noticably busier as we now share the tracks with services from Brussels, Thalys services from Amsterdam as well as domestic high speed services from Boulogne and Lille.
We were slowed to 'truck speed' with some way to go for some reason - I suspect a TGV called at one of the new intermediate stations on the line before we reaccelerated to high speed for around 5 minutes and then slowed for our transit on 'classic' lines for the 15km or so into Paris Gare du Nord. Unfortunately we were brought to a stand at Garches Sarcelles, which is around 13km out and this made our arrival around 10 minutes late. Trains stop particularly close to the buffers as a high-profile faux pas occurred when the '374s' were first tested: they were too long to be fully accommodated onto the platforms at Gare du Nord!
The arrival at Paris Gare du Nord is almost nondescript by comparison to St. Pancras, however it feels like a more traditional station, with plenty of hustle and bustle. Gare du Nord is also home to many other cross-boundary high speed services
Paris Gare du Nord station is undergoing extensive improve work but its platforms are dominated by TGV train sets but I did spot an older loco hauled and some of the new Z50000 EMUs operating suburban services which have a continious open gangway through the vehicles. With just 90 minutes before check-in for our return journey, we decided to get some Metro trips in. M'colleague purchased four tickets for just over 7 euro (single trip on the tube is over £4 and only in zone 1). We boarded Line 4's MP89 rubber-tyred Metro train as far as Chatelet Les Halles. From there we boarded a driverless Line 1 train to Gare de Lyon. Driverless trains are not a new phenomenon, of course. Docklands Light Railway are in essence driverless but they still retain a passenger service agent where Line 1's MP05 trains do not. There are platform edge doors at every station, similar to those on the Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf. It felt more like an airport transit shuttle than a proper metro train.
Photography deep underground is always a challenge when your subject matter is moving at speed and you've not got an expensive camera. Seen here in less than salubrious surroundings is an MP89 rubber-tyred train on Line 4 departing Chatalet Les Halles. While one-way tickets on the Paris Metro are unquestionably excellent value for money, the state of the underground stations and ticket halls is very poor when compared with the excellent work TfL and London Underground have done over the past decades
From Gare de Lyon we transferred onto RER Line A for one stop to experience a double-decked train MI2N back to Chatelet Les Halles. From there m'colleague (who has considerable more experience traversing Paris than me) was hoping we could do a brief sightseeing tour on the surface. He was wrong. Chatelet Les Halles is a maze. And it's deep underground - about 5 levels. It took us about 15 minutes to find the right exit and get to the surface. The idea was to walk on the surface from Les Halles to Chatelet but thanks to Google Maps being unable to make up its mind which walking route to take or even which way it was facing we had to resort to looking at a good old-fashioned map on a poster board to ascertain our exact location. This was not an ideal situation. After something of a dash along a couple of streets, we found Chatelet station and headed straight back on a slow Line 4 to Gare du Nord. I doubt our speed ever exceeded 40kph on the metro.
Eurostar check-in at Gare Du Nord is simply not fit for purpose. It feels shoddily put together with not enough seating and needs a major redesign. While St. Pancras benefitted from effectively bespoke design to accommodate international trains, Gare du Nord feels like Eurostar was accommodated as an afterthought and the cramped conditions almost a punishment for the UK for being exempt from the Shengen Zone.
Possibly the only advantage of the check-in facility at Gare du Nord over that at St. Pancras is that it is all done elevated and the views of the station below are an improvement of what feels like an hermetically-sealed box in London
We boarded our train at 1800, for an 1813 departure and what a difference! Standard and Business Premier coaches share the same seating arrangements, which are 2+1. Each seat has a plug socket and the Wi-Fi works much better. Shortly after departure, we were being served a snack, a roll and butter followed by either salmon or quiche with salad and a crepe for desert. Wine was offered, which we gladly accepted and after that tea or coffee followed. There were also little chocolates. The whole experience was so much more pleasant than being crammed into the Standard class seating.
Now it was dark outside, the return journey was considerably more nondescript than the outward one. The onboard Wi-Fi showed our train's exact location and the speed we were currently travelling at. Normal GPS devises don't work on the '374s', apparently due to a reflective coating applied to the windows, to reduce glare and heat.
Our chariot home (4011), upon arrival at St. Pancras
Our speed never exceeded 295kph, indicative of a cruise control device set at that speed. We slowed for Lille and once clear we reaccelerated towards Calais but this time our speed never went above 280kph. I wondered what the reason was - it became obvious later. We had a seemingly normal transit of the Channel Tunnel but after accelerating away towards Ashford we were slowed down to 50mph. I was able to check Realtime Trains which showed we had been running behind the Brussels service from Lille, explaining our driver's reluctance to run at full speed and that the Lille service was booked to make an Ashford stop. Acceleration was very swift once the train in front had got out the way - we spotted it at a stand in the platform and just 14 minutes later we were arriving at Ebbsfleet International. M'colleague chose to leave the train here, and head back to the coast using a '395', departing just four minutes later, apparently necessitating a light jog along the platform. He also had a change of train at Ashford but was home for 2045.
The e320 is not in short supply at Gare du Nord. Note the proximity of the trains to the buffer stops. While there are two fewer coaches compared to their predecessor, trains are in fact longer, seat more passengers and initially failed to fit on the platforms at Gare du Nord
I, meanwhile, remained on the '374' to St. Pancras International and trundled across to King's Cross in the pouring rain. With my 2030 departure to Grantham being Hull Trains again (their last of the day and formed of 180111), spotting the correct platform before it was advertised was straightforward for obvious reasons. Also, the station was very quiet at this time, mid-week during the school term.
I opted for Coach A in the '180' again - the Quiet Coach, something a couple also for Grantham were seemingly unaware of, watching as they were clips of Kim Woodburn's interview on This Morning via YouTube. After plenty of passive non-aggression from passengers much nearer to them than me, and there being no change in attitude from the offending couple, I moved into the next coach up where it was ironically quieter. That said, the journey was as enjoyable as the outward one and with less padding in the timetable in this direction, my Adelante required to attain an average speed of 103mph to reach Grantham in 61 minutes.
The attentive service on board Hull Trains was in evidence for both my journeys, with the On Board Manager naming all staff on board. My first ever journey with them 12 years ago saw the guard even name the driver upon arrival at King's Cross. A genuine family feel was felt, although diminished somewhat through the FirstGroup branding and signage, but a very impressive standard is maintained nonetheless
We arrived 2 minutes late, possibly due to the driving rain, but nonetheless, this is one of the fastest was to travel between London and Grantham. An aspiration is to make the journey time 1 hour, but with the current capacity constraints of the ECML, this is not likely to be realised anytime soon. Well done to Hull Trains, however, for being consistently the fastest for travel between Grantham and London though!
In summary, the e320/Class 374 is a worthy successor to its predecessor. Fewer coaches but increased capacity, a much sleeker look both inside and out, and a decent offering in Standard Premier for a little more money. As with any long-distance rail travel, booking ahead is essential in receiving the best value fares, and this stands with Eurostar.