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Rail system cuts travel time between England, mainland Europe

Sleek European trains can take travelers from London to Paris in just 2½ hours.
BY RICK STEVES Published: May 27, 2012

Europe is investing in its infrastructure and travelers know the results are breathtaking. With the English Channel tunnel, trains speed from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower in about 2½ hours. You zip under the English Channel in 20 minutes, looking out the window for fish.

More travelers now connect London and Paris by train than by air — and high-speed rail between these two cities may get even faster and cheaper in the near future.

Eurostar, a joint service of the Belgian, British and French railways, is the speedy passenger train that zips you (and up to 800 others in 18 sleek cars) from downtown Paris to downtown London more easily than flying.

Direct Eurostar service from London to Brussels also takes 2½ hours. The actual tunnel crossing is a 20-minute, black, silent, 100-mile-per-hour nonevent. Your ears won't even pop.

In the 15 years that the bullet train has been running, not much has changed except London's Eurostar station — it's now St. Pancras International (in Paris, it stops at Gare du Nord; in Brussels, it's Midi Station). But the pace of change is speeding up. Last December, a high-speed connection between Brussels and Amsterdam opened, cutting the journey from London to Amsterdam by an hour.

In January, Eurostar's monopoly on using the Chunnel — the tunnel beneath the English Channel — expired due to new European Union regulations. In 2008, Air France announced a competing high-speed rail service between London and Paris to start in 2010 — but the economic downturn put that plan on hold.

Deutsche Bahn — Germany's state-run railway company — has confirmed that it is talking to the Chunnel's owners about running direct, high-speed trains between London and Frankfurt or Cologne. And with its high-speed tracks now open, the Netherlands' state-run railroad may be considering direct trains through the Chunnel.

The competition can only be good for travelers, but for now, you'll have to use Eurostar. Its fares are reasonable but complicated. Prices vary depending on how far ahead you reserve, whether you can live with refund restrictions and whether you're eligible for any discounts (children, youths, seniors, round-trip travelers and railpass holders all qualify).

Fares can change without notice, but typically, a one-way, full-fare ticket (with no restrictions on refunds) runs about $425 first-class and $300 second-class. Cheaper seats come with more restrictions and can sell out quickly (figure $80 to $160 for second-class, one-way). Unlike on airlines, you can take two large bags and one small day bag per person for no extra fee.

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