A journey by Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel

NOTICE: This web page was written in 1994, just after the inauguration of Eurostar services. Eurostar celebrated 15 years of operation in November 2009. An account of a more recent trip is available. Since November 2007 Eurostar services have operated from London St Pancras International and not London Waterloo.

On December 20 1994, I travelled from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord by Eurostar train, returning the same day. The journey includes travelling through the Channel Tunnel and over the new French Ligne a Grande Vitesse from the Tunnel to Paris via Lille. This account complements that by Erik Evrard, who travelled from Brussels to London on the first day of the commercial service, November 14.

I arrived at Waterloo International Terminal at 07:11 for the 08:23 departure for Paris. As my ticket wasn't valid by any other service, I wasn't taking any chances. I was in time to see the Eurostar train pull into the terminal from the depot at North Pole (near Old Oak Common on the London to Bristol line). The Waterloo International departure board showed two trains: the 08:23 to Paris and the 10:23 to Bruxelles (sic). I went down the escalator (there is also a lift) to the International concourse and a member of the Eurostar staff took my ticket and put it in the automatic gate. I walked through to the departure lounge which is very smart. As I hadn't any French money, I changed a small amount at the Bureau de Change. The cashiers were French! I then bought a cup of tea from one of the bars/cafes (there are three plus a branch of W.H.Smiths newsagent and some other shops) and the man serving me was also French. I then spoke to one of the Eurostar staff and asked her why so many of the staff were French. She said only a few of the staff were French (in a French accent) and then admitted she was also French. I have no complaints at all about this - the staff were helpful and it made me feel like I was already in France.

My train was shown on the departure screens - Platform 23 (the platform numbers continue from those of the domestic Waterloo station - there are five platforms in the International station). The screens tell you which escalator to use to reach the train depending on the number of the coach containing your seat. (All seats are reserved.) By 07:55 the terminal was filling up and the sun was up outside - I could see the road alongside the terminal through the glass walls. At about 20 minutes before departure time we were allowed up onto the platforms to board the train. Of course, I didn't immediately do so - I walked up to the platform end and asked a man to take a picture with my camera showing me standing alongside the power car. I was surprised to note that the set was based in France at Le Landy depot. The leading power car was number 3218 (those numbered 32xx are French owned) and I spoke briefly to the driver. He was also from Le Landy and he presumably stayed in England the previous night. I imagine that when the full hourly service is introduced the crews will work one trip each way starting at their home depot. I then walked back along the train to my coach (number 15). There are 18 coaches between the two power cars, in this case numbered from the London end, so my coach was near the front. The coach number and destination of the service is shown on a liquid crystal display alongside the doors which are power operated plug doors. (These slide along and then pull inwards towards the coach to close). I had a window seat, facing backwards unfortunately. Announcements were made 10 and 5 minutes before departure, first in English, then in French. (This order was reversed when we were in France.) We departed at the correct time and immediately I noticed the smoothness of the ride. There was very little noise as we ran over pointwork leaving the terminus. Our route took us through Brixton, Herne Hill, Penge Tunnel, Bromley South, Tonbridge and Ashford. In many places as we rounded curves I could see the rear of the train and appreciate the enormous length. Nowhere between London and the Channel Tunnel did we run at high speed. I wasn't able to measure speed much because I was seated on the side opposite the quarter mile posts. We ran through Tonbridge just after 09:00 and Ashford at 09:26. We passed Westenhanger (the last station before the Tunnel) at 09:32. Just before Saltwood tunnel (where the 25kV overhead wires begin) an announcement was made that we were soon to enter the Channel Tunnel and that we should advance our watches by 1 hour.

We came almost to a stand alongside the Cheriton Shuttle Terminal and we had a fine view over the toll booths, terminal area and loading platforms. Just before we entered the Tunnel a London-bound Eurostar passed us and we entered the Tunnel at 09:38. Our transit time had been annnounced as 20 minutes and we did in fact take just this time to emerge into France.

Inside the Channel Tunnel

It is surprising how much you can see and notice inside the Tunnel. I had come well prepared, having read all about the Tunnel in the British railway press, particularly the series of articles in the Railway Magazine written by Peter Semmens over the past few years. For those who don't know, the Tunnel consists of two single-line rail tunnels with a smaller service tunnel running in between. The rail tunnels are connected to the service tunnel at intervals of 375m by cross-passages with doors. There are also ducts arching over the service tunnel at 250m intervals to prevent a piston-effect and allow air ahead of a train to pass across into the other tunnel. There is full lighting throughout the tunnels but the lights in the rail tunnels are normally switched off. However, there is a light over each cross-passage door (a compact fluorescent lamp I think) and these are lit permanently. If you are seated on the correct side (the inside of the rail tunnel, nearest the service tunnel) you can see these lights quite clearly. In fact I was seated on the other side. We were travelling to France in the North Rail Tunnel (as is normal - the trains usually run on the left-hand track) and I was seated on the left side of the train facing in the direction of travel. However, I found that by lowering my head down to table level I could look across out of the windows on the opposite side and thus see the lights (just). My fellow passengers thought I was a bit mad I think until I informed them that we were travelling at 98 m.p.h. (157 km/hr) after 4 minutes in the Tunnel. At this speed you pass a cross-passage every 8.5 seconds. To calculate the speed in km/hr divide 1350 by the time in seconds. (1350 is 3/8 of 3600). For miles per hour divide again by 1.61. Soon I noticed a large pipe on the tunnel wall, and I realised that we were now under the sea. These large pipes carry cooled water from a plant on the shore at Shakespeare Cliff and the warmed water returns there for the heat to be exhausted to the atmosphere. The pipes are not present on the stretch of tunnel from the UK portal to the coast, I think. I wasn't able to see whether the same applied at the French end - I will see next time I travel through the tunnel.

The noise in the tunnel is very slight - there is a `swishing' sound of the wheels on the rails, but no noise from rail joints because the rails are long-welded.

Another thing to notice when you are in the Channel Tunnel is that yellow fire doors slide across the connection between coaches. In the open, these doors are slid back out of sight and the vestibules between coaches are open. There is a slight rise in the floor over the bogie (the coach ends are supported on a common bogie) and there are glass doors between the vestibule and the seating area. The fire doors do not prevent access to the next coach - they open if you want to walk through, but I didn't leave my seat while we were in the tunnel - there was too much to experience - so I don't know whether they open automatically as you approach.

On the outward trip I failed to see the doors dividing the cross-over caverns but I was seated on the wrong side for this. To see out I had to place my face close to the window and shield my eyes from the lights inside the train. I couldn't therefore see much out of the opposite windows.

We emerged into France at 10:58 (having advanced my watch by 1 hour while we were in the tunnel). We could see less of the Frethun Shuttle Terminal as it is farther away from the line than the English terminal although we could see a car shuttle about to come off the terminal exit line onto the tunnel approach.

High speed travel across France

From here on we really began to move fast. One of the attractions of the trip from my point of view was my first taste of 300km/hr rail travel. The Eurostar train is a TGV, although it is not marketed as such. Your ticket does say TGV though, just under the train number, because from next year the same format of ticket will presumably be used for sleeper trains which will not be TGVs. About 14 minutes after leaving the tunnel we had reached 300km/hr. I had already determined this by timing the passing of the km markers on the overhead line supports. At full speed you travel 1 km in 12 seconds and you simply divide 3600 by the time over 1 km to get your speed in km/hr. Shortly after, the Chef du Bord announced that the driver had informed him that we were now travelling at our maximum speed of 300 km/hr. When I translated this into 186 m.p.h for my fellow English travellers they were impressed by the speed, and justifiably so, because the ride was smooth and quiet. (The noise was slightly more noticeable than at 100 m.p.h, but much less than on conventional high-speed trains in Britain at 125 m.p.h.)

We passed Arras at about 11:38 and we were able to compare our speed with that of the traffic on the motorway alongside. Even the fast moving cars seemed to be travelling very slowly and the lorries seemed almost stationary. Of course we were travelling at more than THREE TIMES the speed of a typical lorry and TWICE as fast as the fast cars. Bridges simply flash past. At times we passed a train going the other way. At first I thought these were short local trains, but later I realised that they were French TGV sets travelling at full speed. We thus passed them at a relative speed of 600 km/hr and at this speed the full length of the other train is passed in less than 1.5 seconds.

The rest of the journey passed quickly and we were in Paris Gare du Nord on time at 12:23, 3 hours after leaving London Waterloo.

The journey back

I left Paris the same evening at 17:09. The arrangements at Gare du Nord are not very special, unlike Waterloo. (The French have had international trains for a long time, of course, so they don't think anything much of it.) There is a small lounge for Eurostar passengers, where I bought a cup of tea. Passengers were permitted to board the train much earlier than at Waterloo, but this is necessary because all the passengers have to pass through the same gateway (and the full capacity of a Eurostar is 794 passengers!). Two British Transport Police officers made a strange sight on the platform. I spoke to one of them and he replied that it felt strange being there at the Gare du Nord. As with the outward trip, I was again surprised to find that the set and most of the crew was French. The leading power car was 3221. It was dark soon after we left the Gare du Nord, so I couldn't see much. We reached full speed at 17:32, passed Lille at 18:07 and at 18:35 we entered the Tunnel. This time my seat was on the `inside' wall - we were in the South Rail Tunnel. Again the speed was about 100 m.p.h. (161 km/hr) and although I missed the French crossover I was able to see the yellow doors at the UK crossover about 13 minutes after entering the tunnel. Broadly the time in the tunnel at 100 m.p.h. from the French side divides into 6 minutes to the French crossover, another 6 to the UK crossover and 8 more to the UK portal. (There is more tunnel under land on the English side.)

The crossovers connect the two rail tunnels and each contains a scissors crossing housed in a huge cavern 170m long and about 18m wide. The service tunnel crosses over (or under?) the rail tunnels to run alongside the crossover cavern. Normally the two sides of the cavern are separated by steel sliding doors, but these can be rolled back to allow trains to cross from one tunnel to the other. This can be done in emergencies or during routine work on a part of the tunnel. At full speed you pass through the cavern in 3.8 seconds so if you want to see the doors you must be looking out before you reach the cavern.

We stopped in the tunnel about 4 minutes before we should have emerged into England. I was thus able to see the concrete segments and several of the cross-passage doors (labelled `EXIT SORTIE'). There are also small green illuminated arrows on the tunnel wall indicating the direction to the nearest cross-passage. I had seen these earlier but I couldn't tell what they were. I also noted that some of the tunnel workers (presumably) had been writing on the pipework and walls. I won't repeat any of what I read. Our stop was due to a cab signal we were told and we were soon moving again and emerged into England. We couldn't see much of the shuttle terminal this time, but we did see the illuminated platforms and I noted some lorries going through the toll booths. It was 19:02 British time.

The journey to London was over the same route as before and we arrived at Waterloo on time despite the stop in the tunnel.


I can't wait to go again. The train was superb, the high speed travel in France was exciting and it was marvellous to travel city-centre to city-centre with almost no hassle, compared to flying or taking a ferry. (I am admittedly an enthusiast for rail travel, but I think many people will agree with me.)


Above: The author plus Eurostar at Waterloo International just before departure.

Below: The same Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord about three hours later.

Above: A close-up of the Eurostar's plug door showing also the liquid-crystal display indicating destination and coach number.

Above: One of the places I visited - La Grande Arche de la Defense. 110m cubed. If you think this isn't impressive see the picture below to get a real idea of the scale!

Steve Sangwine, GB.

Email the author: sjs@essex.ac.uk.

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