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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

Since only the most expensive (full-fare) ticket is fully refundable, don't reserve until you're sure of your plans. But if you wait too long, the best deals will get bought up.

When you're ready to ride, you'll find the process is similar to an airport check-in — without all the drama, sole-baring shoe inspections and waiting. You must be at the station at least 30 minutes in advance of your Eurostar trip. You'll pass through airport-like security, show your passport to customs officials and find your departure gate listed on a TV monitor.

There are a few shops, newsstands, snack bars and cafes, pay-Internet terminals and a currency-exchange booth with rates about the same as you'll find on the other end.

I like to ride in second class (Standard class) to save money. First class (also called Leisure Select) gets you a little more leg and elbow room, a newspaper, a classy meal and power plugs at your seat.

As you zoom along at speeds up to 185 miles per hour, consider how long it took to link Britain and France. Since the days of Napoleon, there had been talk about a tunnel under the English Channel, but it wasn't until 1986 that the two countries finally reached an agreement to build it together.

Once the digging started, crews crept forward 100 feet a day until June 1991, when French and English workers broke through and shook hands midway across the Channel. Voila! Cheers! The tunnel was complete.

Its 24-mile underwater section is the world's longest directly under the sea. The ambitious project helped to show the European community that cooperation between nations could benefit everyone. High-tech know-how, a shared European vision and people's love of travel have created incredibly fast trains that crisscross, link and strengthen Europe.

Whizzing along on a European bullet train is the greenest way to go — far more fuel-efficient and less polluting than flying. Every time I ride through the Chunnel, I'm thankful for Europe's comfortable rail network.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020