I rode Eurostar
from London's Waterloo Station
to Paris's Gare du Nord
in early March 2003, keeping my eyes open and my GPS
in hand to watch exactly where we were and just how fast we were going. This WU will attempt to give a more up-to-date view of the passenger
experience from London to Paris; I unfortunately do not have any information other than hearsay for the reverse route or the Belgian service, because I flew home from Paris.
Tickets can be purchased in the UK, continental Europe or USA, in GBP, Euros or USD respectively. Prices in each currency are fixed and don't necessarily have any relation to prevailing exchange rates, so if you want to travel as cheaply as you can, it's best to shop around before you order. Advance tickets will usually be less expensive, and if you're under 26, you can get a youth rate whether you're a student or not. All tickets are reserved seating.
Upon arrival at Waterloo by Tube, you follow signs for Eurostar service into a separate terminal area specifically for this service. If you have a magnetically-encoded ticket, you can (and should) run it through the automatic gates; paper-only (often US-issued) tickets must be manually checked.
Once you check in, you proceed to security. This process is now just like airport security, with metal detectors and a long list of prohibited carry-on items very similar to that of major international airlines.
After security is a considerably less-difficult passage through French customs, complete with uniformed French national police standing around looking useless. In my case, I don't think the customs agent even compared my face to my passport photo, and she certainly didn't ask me about my travel plans or if I had any declarations as she stamped my passport to welcome me to France. Granted, I probably didn't fit the typical threat profile, with an American passport, beat-up overstuffed backpack and arms full of obviously touristy crap, but it still seemed extremely cursory to me in comparison to the landing card I had to fill out and verbal exam I had to pass to get into the UK by air. (Hearsay indicates that the Brits actually do make a serious effort on inbound trains, with landing cards passed out for non-EU nationals1 and customs agents on board.)
The departures lounge has a cafe, a Eurostar gift shop, and a few other typical travel shops ready to separate the traveler from whatever remaining British cash he or she wishes to unload. There's also a currency exchange desk, with predictably awful rates, right between the two ramps leading to the platforms.
After all this, boarding the train is a non-event. The doors open, gate agents check your ticket before you get on the escalator up to the track (again, just like the airport), you find your car(riage) and get on board.
Once on the train, you settle in for what was at the time a three-hour ride to Paris, but is now 2:40 and will continue to shorten as more segments of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link open and the London starting point moves over to Kings Cross. My train made a boarding-only stop at Ashford Kent, but continued directly to Paris from there, passing through/near Lille but not stopping. Second-class accomodations are considerably more comfortable than airline economy class -- in particular, my knees fit easily into the space provided, something I can't say about any airplane on which I've ever flown (I'm 6'4"/193cm tall), or about some of the UK and French domestic train services I took during my trip. That alone was worth the price premium over EasyJet for me. There is one overpriced cafe car in the middle of the train, with prices listed in GBP and Euros. (US dollars are also accepted, presumably at a bad exchange rate, but change is only given in your choice of Euros or GBP.) Announcements on the train are made first in English, then in French in the UK, then the reverse in France. Announcements are also made in "Dutch of variable quality" on services to Belgium, according to Albert Herring1.
On my trip, the train reached a maximum speed of just below 100mph in England. Again, as more segments of the CTRL open, the maximum speed will increase2. The train maintains approximately 100mph through the Channel Tunnel; the only noticeable difference on board the train is that the outside is dark and the doors between cars are closed (but can still be opened to head for the bathrooms or cafe car). The real fun is in France, where the Eurostar follows TGV tracks and does speeds of up to 186mph (peak on my trip was 183). For those who haven't done this before, the first time another train passes you in the opposite direction is an experience not to be missed; the entire train shakes with the air blast.
Once you arrive in Paris, you get off the train and head for the main body of the station. The only difference between this and any other arriving train is that there are no boarding passengers clogging up the platform. Welcome to France.
(1) 2003.3.24@16:41 Albert Herring says re Eurostar : In about 40 years of travelling across the Channel I don't think that I have *ever* been asked questions by French customs or immigration. The UK ones have been getting mroe and more intrusive year on year, though. Landing cards are only for non-EU nationals. Trains don't split to Brussels; that is a separate service, adn it does have announcements in Dutch of variable quality.
(2) 2003.3.24@16:47 StrawberryFrog says re eurostar "rumor has it that ongoing track work will allow an increase in speed." this is true. I know this becuase I have I installed our company's railway modelling software for the CTRL (channel tunnel rail link) project