Rail Travelers Embrace Their Channel Crossing

You can have a drink while waiting for your train. Or you can . . .
You can have a drink while waiting for your train. Or you can . . . (By Edward Schneider)
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Sunday, March 2, 2008

It has been more than a decade since I first traveled between London and Paris on Eurostar, the high-speed train under the English Channel, and some clear memories stick in my normally unretentive brain. The whole enterprise was swanky. The metal and glass international terminal grafted onto London's grim, gray Waterloo Station had good coffee and plenty of elbow room. It was calm and quiet and made for an altogether pleasant experience.

That, of course, was when just shy of 3 million passengers a year were using the service -- that's the figure Eurostar gives for 1995, its first full year. By 2007 the traffic had grown to 8.26 million, accounting for about two-thirds of passengers on the London-Paris and London-Brussels routes, the remainder crammed into airplanes or braving the waves of the English Channel on ferries.

What was pleasant for 3 million passengers was not so hot when more than 8 million were vying for the same seats in the waiting room. Waterloo International had become crowded, hectic and a bit threadbare. Not that this deterred me: The easy downtown-to-downtown trip was worth jostling for. But I could hardly wait for Eurostar's London terminal to move across town to St. Pancras Station, a Victorian monument saved from demolition in the 1960s, especially as the best journey time had been cut (by about half an hour) to 2 1/4 hours. The new terminal opened in November, with a great deal of hoopla, and I recently got a chance to use it.

My wife and I had been in London for a couple of days, and everybody we spoke to had heard about the terminal, which contains a not universally loved monumental sculpture of a couple enjoying a kiss and what is billed as the world's longest champagne bar. Many had made their way over for a drink and a look around -- and a few had hopped on a France-bound train. But dimwitted from jet lag, we hadn't figured out that the bar and the other more spectacular uses of St. Pancras's Victorian spaces are all in the public areas -- that is, before check-in and security. So on our way out of London, we saw little. Don't make the same mistake: Explore the station before going through the turnstile.

Upon our return to London, we finally ascended the escalator to the champagne bar. The bar itself isn't long at all, but wood-encased nooks stretch all along the Eurostar platform: elegant and surprisingly quiet, a good place for, duh, champagne (or coffee or a snack). You can choose a basic model at nearly $15 a glass, or you can blow $12,650 on a jeroboam of "White Gold" Dom Perignon.

Although some of the transportation links are not quite there yet (the connection with the Underground is awkward, for instance), the airy surroundings are indeed spectacular, all faux-gothic parti-colored brick, arches and painted ironwork, and there is a sense of excitement: Effective design and lighting, an atmosphere of foreign travel, happy crowds and a few grams of alcohol combine to create a genuine buzz. More restaurants, bars and shops will soon be opening, and on the basis of the champagne bar's popularity there is every reason to think that St. Pancras will become a destination in its own right. Think of Union Station with the Eiffel Tower thrown in.

-- Edward Schneider

Eurostar tickets start at about $159 for a London-Paris round trip. The cheapest tickets go on sale four months in advance, and they disappear fast, especially around peak dates, so book as early as you can, at http://www.eurostar.com. The champagne bar at St. Pancras Station (tube: King's Cross-St. Pancras) is open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight.

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