Vitali Vitaliev tests a new direct Eurostar route from London to Marseille, which turns out to be not quite direct and therefore not all that new.
My Eurostar Diary
23 July, 6:20am
I am eating porridge at the St Pancras Station Pret-a-Manger outlet, with my eyes fixed on a huge Eurostar timetable above the counter: “Paris - 6.52; Brussels – 6.57; Marseille – 7.19,” it announces matter-of-factly.
It is only the fear of being grossly misunderstood that stops me from asking the smartly dressed croissant-gobbling gentleman at the next table to pinch me. Despite having a clearly printed ticket in my pocket, boarding a direct Marseille-bound train at a London station still sounds highly improbable - a mixture of a bad joke and a long-time dream.
I recall my first-ever trip on the first-ever Eurostar train over 20 years ago, when all the journalists on board (it was the official press opening of the route) burst into applause as the train entered the Channel Tunnel – the applause that became an ovation as our brand-new coach flew out of it and rolled into France twenty minutes later. I then worked for the now-defunct European newspaper, but do remember a railway journalist sitting next to me being worried about how the train was going to cope with the changeover from 750 V dc third-call current collection to 25 kV ac at the speed of 160 km/h, and whether the collection shoes would get automatically retracted when we entered the Tunnel to conform with the standard European gauge (I wrote it all down then). To his relief, the train passed both tests with its own flying – white, blue and yellow – colours.
Today, I am in for a six-hour-and-twenty-four-minute direct journey, with just four stops: at Ashford, Lille (where the crew will change and an SNCF driver will take over the train controls), Lyon and Avignon, arriving in Marseille at 14.46 CET, allowing me plenty of time for a dip in the Mediterranean Sea followed with a bouillabaisse, a traditional local fish stew. At 1,239km, this is the longest-ever direct route served by any British passenger train, so it does feel a bit like making history. And what a change compared to just 50 years ago, when the fastest railway journey from London to Marseille took 22 hours, including a change of trains and a ferry crossing!
Time to board!
In the Eurostar departure lounge. They have announced that it is +34 degrees in Marseille. Am I really going to be there in just over six hours?
“Welcome on board the train to Marseille St Charles,” a cheerful female voice announces through the intercom. So it is for real! Can't believe that through these very train windows I will soon see the terraced vineyards, cypresses and mountains of the South of France. Unfortunately, my window is all but blocked by the head rest of the seat in front of me. My Irish luck!
The train starts on the dot. I put my watch one hour forward and open my compact “European Railway Atlas” by M.G. Ball. To reach Marseille, we'll have to travel across six of its pages! Have picked up the latest issue of French Property News magazine, with the focus on Marseille. “Anyone interested in making this sunny southern city their second home can now get there directly via [sic - VV] Eurostar, with no need to change trains at Lille or Paris, without the hassle of airport security and baggage restrictions - and without having a bottle of water confiscated,” the cover story goes. I take my bottle of Evian out of the seat pocket and put it in my shoulder bag, just to be on the safe side, you know.
CET. In France. The train has just emerged from the Tunnel and is now whooshing through Calais. No asylum seekers in sight.
Passed through Lille, where the train had a short service stop for the crew change. All the train crew, including the drivers (there are always two of them on Eurostar trains) are now French.
All hell breaks loose after an unnecessarily cheerful intercom announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we'll have to go to Paris where we will disembark and take another train!” No explanation, no habitual UK-style apologies (“for the disruption to this service”). I get hold of an attendant fluttering past with an empty tray. “Why do we have to go to Paris which we were supposed to bypass?” “A technical problem,” he shrugs and dashes on, not realising that he had just ruined my dream. It is not going to be a direct journey, after all! I am heart-broken!
Out of sheer despair, I go to the bar carriage and order a chicken wrap and a cup of espresso. The barman seems to know more than the attendants (barmen always do) and says that we'll be in Paris for 30-40 minutes and all it will take will be a walk across the platform to board another train. The barman doesn't seem to realise that a walk of even a couple of inches turns the whole experience into a transit journey of the type mankind has been enjoying for years between London and Marseille, so my hopes of making history have themselves become history!
Besides, the detour to Paris will mean a much later arrival to Marseille, so adieux to the beach and au revoir to the Bouillabaisse!
My shortest ever Paris walk: across platform 13/14 at La Gare du Nord. Am now on another Eurostar train, in a carriage which looks much older and less clean than the previous one. The magic of the trip has been largely ruined. We are still stationary and the fluttering attendants have no idea of how long we'll stay in Paris for. Through the window (still largely blocked by another head rest on the seat in front of me) I can spot a part of a typically Parisian mansard roof, with a couple of flower pots on it. Is this little view worth a detour? I decide that it is: you can't see mansard roofs anywhere else but in Paris, so from now on I decide to mentally refer to the detour as an unplanned Paris excursion.
Still in Paris, or rather at La Gare du Nord. An attendant is distributing “Disruption Compensation” leaflets – they seem to have those aplenty. My formerly semi-empty carriage is now full to the brim: they have brought in passengers from a neighbouring coach in which “air-conditioning has broken down”. A French lady from Lyon is now sitting next to me. “Disruptions often happen on this new route,” she tells me. “Once I was waiting for a Eurostar to London at Lyon, but it didn't stop there – just went straight through. They explained that the crew were afraid that if they stopped the train, they wouldn't be able to start it again. They shouldn't have rushed to open this route!” No comment.
After a number of blank “train ready to depart” announcements, we are finally moving. Last glimpse of the endemic mansard roof: I will never forget it.
Surprises continue. They have just announced that “to reduce the delay, we'll stop at a different station in Lyon – Lyon Saint-Exupery instead of Lyon Part-Dieux”. My neighbour is distressed. “Mon Dieux!” she exclaims. “It is miles away from my home and I'll have to take another train to get there!”
Arrive at Lyon Saint-Exupery. I wish my neighbour a good unplanned trip home.
They have just announced a new arrival time for Marseille: 15.40, instead of 14.46. Sounds a bit too optimistic to me, for we are nowhere near Avignon yet. The train rattles across Le Canal du Midi and I momentarily get carried away by the stunning views and lush vegetation of the South of France. Yes, despite all detours and delays, we have got there in an (almost) direct (if not to count a short Paris walk) journey. A long queue in the bar carriage. Luckily, they still serve espresso.
At Avignon TGV, the last stop before Marseille. The air-conditioning in the carriage works half-heartedly, with fits and starts, as if suffering from apnea, and the heat is almost unbearable. Yet it must be much worse outside: the South of France and the whole of Southern Europe is experiencing an unprecedented heatwave.
We are finally in Marseille, “just” one-and-a-half-hours late. The journey took eight hours instead of 6.5, but my main disappointment is that it was not “direct” by any measure! I now hope that the return journey tomorrow will be properly “direct” and I could still claim to have made some railway history.
The return journey
In reality, the return journey was not even supposed to be direct. I should have consulted the Eurostar website which says openly: “Passengers travelling from France back to the UK have to undergo “security and immigration checks” at Lille Europe, “where customers leave the train before continuing the journey to Ashford and London”.
And we all did, including passengers with little kids and in wheel chairs. Pushing (pulling, dragging) our suitcases, we all proceeded to a brand-new terminal building, which, it seemed, was built specifically for the passengers of the “direct” route from Marseille. Our passports and luggage were promptly checked there by the happy-looking French and UK immigration and customs officers, after which we returned to our seats on board the Eurostar.
The whole procedure took 1.5 hours, and I (as well as many other passengers) could not help wondering why the checks could not have been conducted onboard the moving train, as was the case before on all other Eurostar routes?
We arrived at St Pancras at 22.15. It was pouring with rain outside – a welcome relief from the heat and the faulty air-conditioning in my Eurostar carriage, which kept malfunctioning all through the return journey (“Don't worry – you'll be in London soon!” a crew member reassured me when I tried to complain).
At home, I opened my travel bag and was momentarily hit in the face by a mini heatwave that burst out of it – a whiff of the hot South of France air. It was a timely reminder that I had indeed completed a long train journey from one climate zone to another, for had I travelled by air, my bag would have certainly cooled down in the plane's hold. So it was the miracle of a trip, after all, even if a delayed and interrupted one. I have no doubt that Eurostar will soon get over the new route's annoying “teething problems” - the long-promised new e320 carriages will finally replace the “tired” old rolling stock - and the direct hop from London to Marseille will take its legitimate place among the world's greatest railway journeys.
As for making history, I got an unexpected boost from Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, Europe's top railway writers and editors of “Hidden Europe” magazine, whom I saw in Berlin shortly after my Eurostar adventure. My detour to Paris, they said, was unique due to the fact that our replacement Eurostar train went directly to the South of France from La Gare du Nord, not La Gare de Lyon. They assured me that it was the first time in over fifty years that such a journey, albeit unintended, was undertaken. That made me feel considerably better!