Impressions of St. Pancras International and the new Eurostar High Speed 1, leaving on the very first train.
14.11.2007 - 14.11.2007
I accept that i might have been slacking in recent months. You have heard nothing about my assorted travels, living in Prague, almost getting engaged, being sold by my big boss, struggling through a rugby world cup in which England were utterly dire by, horrifically, still made it to the final and being found again by Kiki amongst much else many others. If you really really want to know about any of that, let me know and i could be persuaded. If not, as most of you won't, don't worry about it. It's not important to this narrative. And thus it was that my stint in London came to an end. I accept that would have made more sense if anybody had known that I was in London, but hey, these things happen.
Almost entirely by accident, my departure was set up so that I was leaving the UK, as always, by Eurostar, but with a slight twist to normal in that I was leaving on the very first day of St. Pancras International's grand opening. St. Pancras is an impressive old station with a long history (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_railway_station) and International trains have been transferred from Waterloo to St. Pancras along with the opening of a new section of high speed line in the Uk, meaning that my journey gets 20mins quicker. Actually, no. That's a lie. Because of the stupid b*stards elsewhere, connection times have not changed, and in cases have become allot worse, so whilst passengers to Bruxelles or Paris get a shorter trip, I don't. Moving on.
But because of how things worked out , I actually ended up on the first public train out of the new St. Pancras International.
First a word about Waterloo. At a rough guess, i have made about 200 journeys on Eurostar over the years, and whilst it is not and never has been my favourite place, it has always done it's job reasonably well. And Eurostar do have a sense of humour, however. The very last train to leave the old station was the 1812 from Waterloo...
Initial impressions of St. Pancras are very good. The old train shed has been completely rebuilt and looks stunning. At platform level, all is good. We watched as the band played, the first special Bruxelles and Paris trains left with all their VIPs, admired the scenery. Lots of people, unsurprisingly, were out and about, but it wasn't bad at all. Having said that, almost all the retail outlets and cafes are still some way short of opening, and their much vaunted “longest champagne bar in Europe” is definitely a bit of a swindle, as the bar itself is fairly small and square shaped, it's just the seating which is a long line.
The champagne bar, marketed as Europe's longest, and (below) the band plays.
After the ceremonies were finished, the special trains had left, the band had stopped playing and i'd been interviewed for the umpteenth time (wandering around with lots of luggage quickly marked me out as a traveller, not a curious bystander or VIP) it was time for the real business to begin. How the heck do i get on this train??
Above: Some of the assembled masses await the first train's arrival, and a view from further back showing where the retail units and check in areas dug into the old cellars will be under the tracks
Check in was ok, but not without hassles. All of the automatic ticket barriers had failed, meaning manual check in only. Half the check in desks were also closed, some of the doors from there into security weren't opening, and the check in staff were all having to wear gloves and thick coats as it was flippin freezing! Amazingly for me, X-ray and security caused absolutely no problem and immigration ditto, though they have added a second passport control (UK and France, instead of just France).
Then there was the waiting area, and i must admit to being very disappointed. Whilst free newspapers (no idea if this will last, and, bizarrely, offering a dozen foreign papers and every conceivable English paper with the exception of the Times) and – admittedly fairly foul - bottled yoghurt drinks were a bonus, all 3 retail outlets and cafe's etc were shut, and only one of which looks like it might be ready anytime soon. Call me fussy, but when you have spent 6billion pounds and request passengers to check in at least 40mins before departure, I'm not impressed that it wasn't possible to get hold of simple things like tap/bottled water and a coffee on opening day. There were signs outside the check in, but they weren't that obvious and most people seemed surprised to discover inside that they couldn't get a nice cup of tea. The number of outlets is significantly less than in Waterloo (where there were news agents, Bureau d'exchange, a bar, a cafe – both with their own seating - sandwich shop, and souvenir places), and only one of them looks (by sneaking a look through a hole in the current wooden covering) like it will have any space at all.
Whilst I accept St. Pancras has space constraints, i think they could (and should have manged what they had a bit better). The total number of seats seems to be less, if slightly better spaced out, though the fact that the whole of the bottom is open makes it look bigger than Waterloo was. And half of the seats which have been installed are backless things which look pretty, but aren't good to sit on, and are also in one long chain, meaning that you can't cross it half way down as would have made sense.
And because of where the travelators up to the platforms are now located, both entrances are opposite each other in the central area which means that when trains start to board, there is a huge mass of people right in the centre of the concourse getting in their own and everybody else's way. I had also watched the first passengers arrive before checking in, and though I haven't arrived there myself yet, there were queues as people tried to get out into a fairly small area
Once checked in, seating is in shorter supply than at Waterloo, and was fast filling up even with check in barely open. The black curtained off at the back is presumably where the bar will end up.
There are only one set of toilets instead of two, which though having roughly the same total number of of toilets, cover the same size as one of waterloo's two. This basically means it is much more squashed, and cubicles etc have got smaller and with inwards opening doors, meaning if you have much luggage, it is now a right pain to take them to the toilet with you (which if you are travelling alone and don't want your luggage blown up as a security risk, you have to take with you). And i managed to break a toilet.
Business Premier passengers seem to have come off worse of all, with the old Business lounge replaced by a couple of sofa type seats shoved in the same area as everyone else and lacking a bar, though it is possible that there is one that is still to be opened. Yes, they may expect you to do you waiting and refreshing etc outside, but with check in times, you can't exactly come through 5mins before departure as per the old lounges. And there was no Wi-Fi anywhere.
Paying the vast extra free for Business Premier tickets currently gets you to pick a newspaper and bag with a few small goodies off this conference table. A far cry from the old Business Premier lounge
One nice new feature was a bank of stools and desks with power points, both UK and European, for laptop users, but that seemed to be the only new addition, which compared to the losses is not a huge gain....
And, typically, the French were on strike anyway, meaning no connections in Lille or Paris!
Honestly, whilst it looks pretty, practically I'm dissapointed as it is a huge step backwards in terms of facilities, and passengers connecting to services in Europe don't even get the benefit of faster door to door times. Yes, it was first day. I entered 20mins after the first check in opened, so i accept that there will be teething troubles and some things won't be ready. The problem is that more seemed unready than ready, and some of the major problems – lack of store, cafe and seating space seem unlikely to be fixable due to the layout of the building.
The famous old clock has been restored, and this new sculpture has been installed as a new focal point
Onboard, I quickly joined the queue at the bar car for a coffee I'd been gagging for for ages, to discover large quantities of free champagne being dispersed in the bar car. No announcements were made about this at all, and I also doubt that this will last, but it was a nice touch and for those of us that found out about it, well appreciated. We shot through the new tunnel, passed through the opening of Stratford Int'l station (not to open until Olympic work completed in a couple of years), and then the second tunnel coming out into the open through Dagenham Dock, and at an impressive speed. The line has been impressively threaded between roads on a dipping bridge to get past the M25 at the Dartford Crossing, and then we shoot into another tunnel under the Thames, past Ebbsfleet (a new station due to open a week later, and which is basically a huuuuuuuge car park) and then onto the previously opened section of fast line, all at near full speed and a marked contrast to the old crawl through South East London. That, at least, has been very well done.
Talking to people both whilst waiting and in the bar car, and overhearing conversations, it was obvious whilst there were a handful of randoms who just happened to have booked a ticket without having any idea of what was going on (some of whom didn't realise until they arrived at the station), most people fell more or less entirely into two groups. A good 60-70% were people out simply because it was the first day. Many had come from the Midlands or Northern England taking advantage of new faster connections. They were generally older travellers, most of whom had never used Eurostar before – thus had nothing to measure it against – and all of whom were hugely impressed at the whole experience. The rest of us were more regular travellers, for whom the new station was a nice diversion, and who were more interested in the practicalities of the station than the “wow” factor. And whilst we were happy at the journey times being cut, it was noticeable that we were almost entirely dissapointed by St. Pancras, much to the interest of other passengers.
Our train awaits to depart, with the new shed extension in the background and the rebuilt old domed roof, the largest such structure in the world clearly visable
I'll finish on a random aside – I had cunningly managed to travel on a day when SNCF were on strike, and with DB (German Railways) striking the following day. Thus, being on a night train going from France to Germany was possibly the worst place i could be. After a lovely evening and meal with some CSers, I left Bruxelles over an hour late, amid chaos, got kicked off (Hamburg portion only) in Dortmund in the freezing cold at 4am, had to wait 45mins before continuing on a train with only normal seats. I thus arrived in Hamburg about 2hr 30 late, and with no connection anyway, somehow managed to hitch my way with a friendly Danish lorry driver as far as the ferry at Puttgarden, went over as a foot passenger, and then hitched again to Nykobing F, and finally rolled home a good 6hours later than expected. Why do they have to make everything so bl**dy difficult?!
In summary, It was first day, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt at this point. There was a definite wow factor at St. Pancras, and the journey time savings and new line are very good, but they rapidly need to sort out teething problems at St. Pancras and get it fully up and running if it is to truly help and enhance the service.
Oh yes, and I am now back living in Sweden. For how long is anybody's guess.