LONDON AND PARIS — No matter the time of day or how much they know, passengers on the Channel Tunnel trains can count on being left in the dark.
But only for about 20 minutes.
That's all the time it takes to zip through the second-longest rail tunnel in the world.
In service since 1994, the trains travel between London and Paris and Brussels, with connections to other cities. In just three hours, you can go from listening to Big Ben's gong, to looking up at the Eiffel Tower, for example.
Travelers often praise the ride, according to one knowledgeable London cabbie. (He did hear that the food left something to be desired, but more on that later.)
One thing is for certain: Getting between the British Isles and the Continent is now a lot easier.
Eurostar, a consortium of railways in Britain, France, and Belgium, runs the service. Trains travel both ways through a 31-mile-long tunnel under the English Channel, made up of three interconnected tubes.
The idea for the tunnel dates back to Napoleon - a historical tidbit that helps in remembering the 'Waterloo' London station where trains depart. If that doesn't keep the name on the tip of your tongue, London cabs will, as some are painted with this advertising message: "Paris via Waterloo s'il vous plat, Mr. Driver."
The London station sports modern facilities - still pristine after two years service. Eateries and shops fill the waiting area, as do bathrooms with dark marble sinks that could adorn a museum.
Eurostar's colors - canary yellow, navy, and white - are everywhere: emblazoned on all literature, souvenirs, and uniforms, making the helpful multilingual staff easy to spot.
With preassigned seats, boarding is a snap, give or take the time it takes to show your passport a few times and to remember the strict rule about check-in closing 20 minutes before departure.
Once the train is up to speed, the trip seems to whiz by as fast as the countryside.
"It's so quiet," marvelled an American traveling to Paris with his family, including two small children.
Although the three-hour ride sounds long, when you add it up, it's comparable to taking a plane - and it can be less of a hassle.
Flying between London and Paris several years ago, I took the tube (subway), to London's Heathrow airport (45 minutes), waited while the plane was delayed (another hour), and then hopped a bus from the airport to Paris once there (more time). The flight itself took about an hour and 10 minutes.
Eurostar was much different. The stations in London and Paris are at convenient subway stops in the city, and the trains are almost always punctual. They travel at up to 200 m.p.h. on the French side, and 100 m.p.h. on the British side, where the tracks are older.
The fares are comparable to flying. Flights between Paris and London can cost $150 to $350 roundtrip in coach; a second-class roundtrip Eurostar ticket between London and Brussels or Paris, the most popular route, is $178 to $278. Special fares are offered to railpass holders, seniors, those under 26, and children.
The second-class compartments are much like those in American trains, with rows of two seats on either side of a main aisle. Luggage is stowed at each end of the car, or on shelves above the seats. The seats are comfortable, with a plush covering and foot rest, but the aisle is not too wide.
Window seats are the best - even if you usually prefer the aisle for more leg room. For one thing, you avoid the traffic from people going to the remarkably clean restrooms, or the dining car. (The train holds 794 passengers, most of whom travel second-class.)
Also, on the aisle you are more likely to have someone lean into you, as it is quite a feat to walk upright when the high-speed train is zooming along at several hundred miles an hour.
And the scenery-seeing is better. Not that spectacular views are
Breezing Through the Chunnel
available, but in England you'll likely spot a few sheep, and the countryside on both sides of the tunnel is generally pleasant.
If you prefer a window seat, be sure to inquire when ordering your ticket. If you're not able to get one, you can often move to a window if the train isn't full. You may also choose to move if your seat is not in the direction of travel (something you can't request ahead of time.)
Now, a few words about the train's food: Bring your own. The prices are high and the lines are often long. On the way to Paris, I stood in line more than 20 minutes. Quite a sacrifice, only to be offered selections such as microwaved pizza and sandwiches. The dining car has only a handful of tables, so those who want cold items, like a sandwich or drink, are better off waiting in their seats for the snack trolley that moves down the aisle (another reason to be by the window).
In first-class, a meal is included with the ticket. You might get an English breakfast with sausages and an omelet, for example. But one traveler who sampled the fare on a previous ride said, "It's like airline food, but not first-class airline food."
Cuisine aside, the only glitch I had was finding the train again in Paris. The subway, or Mtro, is usually commuter friendly, but the Gare du Nord station is a labyrinth of unmarked passageways. There is no indication in any language of where to find Eurostar. (The international departures are across the street, but I had to use most of my French vocabulary to find out.)
Despite that minor setback, the Chunnel train still ranks high with this traveler. It is comfortable, convenient, and only demands that you mind your s'il vous plats and thank-yous.
*For information call: 800-387-6782. Train schedules are on the Internet at www.raileurope.com or www.eurostar.com