The Snow In The Summer Or So-So

Brussels trip (1)

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Last week was a trip to Brussels, with a few aims:

- Enhance my music collection with some Continental work;
- Acquire waffles and chocolates, and chocolate waffles;
- Increase my wardrobe;
- Meet interesting people;
- Review television;
- Experience Eurostar.

It's the last that I'll start with, but not before trekking down from Birmingham to Waterloo via Euston on a Branson-train. There are signs of change immediately after leaving Neustraßebahnhof, for the Curzon-street sorting office building has been demolished. We're three minutes late leaving Neustraßebahnhof, and won't make any of it up before Coventry. If the station dwell times were precisely 0 seconds, we wouldn't have lost a further two minutes on that stretch. ITV Trains (as they so nearly became) have lost the comedy selection from the sometimes-working at-seat audio, and replaced it with a Billy K. Joel concert. Fine for those who like that sort of thing, but that leaves no speech provision on any of the ten channels, with the possible exception of Dick and Dom's jokes. The Wembley Building Site 2.0 is gleaming in the sun, and not all of the reflections come from the cranes. You know, it might just be ready for the cup final in - oh, 2010...

Euston to Waterloo I do in the front car of the Northern line train, thus avoiding the crush at Tottenham-court-road (where everyone piles on in the rear, as they do at Euston).

Check-in for the Eurostar is in the basement at Waterloo, and is automated - put your ticket in, the computer thinks about it for about ten seconds, spits it out, thinks some more, takes it in for further consideration, then finally spits it out for one to take and open the gate. Then comes a row of desks that would be staffed by UK Emigration staff, if such people exist. Next comes the single most pointless thing I'll see all trip: the X-ray scanners for baggage. There's no reason not to treat Eurostar as just another train, yet the politicians have decreed that it is to be treated like a huge threat. Bloody xenophobic Brits.

Ahem. Then comes passport control for France, where they take an electronic copy of the passport. And then to the departure lounge - there's a bar, a coffee place, a newsagent, and a few tat-shops; it'll do, the maximum dwell time here is about 75 minutes, the average will be less than 30. There's functional seating, lots of soft canvas benchettes. Signs are in English and French; some have Dutch translations, there's no German in sight.

The departure of the Paris train rumbles overhead ominously, and we go up the escalators to board about fifteen minutes before the departure time. The trains are 16 cars long, something like a quarter of a mile from end to end. I'm taking Leisure First, the class formerly known as Premium Economy. It's not Business First, my ticket is not flexible; nor is it Cattle Class, I've not got to bring my own lunch. There are about 30 seats in my coach, arranged in 2-and-1, almost all the seats are around a table. The decor is shades of grey, with hefty orange headrests; it's a surprisingly dull outlook. Overhead, there's two levels of racking; a slim one for coats or briefcases, and a thicker one for larger bags. Suitcases go in racks at the end of each car; there are also newspapers and journals for collection.

We're off bang on time, past the Completely Unnecessary Security Guard who spends all day sat in a little kiosk at the end of the platform. The line from Waterloo runs alongside the Thames for the first mile or so, and I have (in turn) an opposite view of Westminster, and a good view of the Dildo. Here's the timings for the suburban stretch:

12.40 Waterloo
12.43 Vauxhall
  (Battersea flyover)
12.45 Wandsworth Road
12.48 Brixton
  (we're really crawling)
12.50 Hearne Hill
  (Sydenham Tunnel)
12.53 Penge East
12.58 Bickley
13.01 St Mary Cray
  (difficult to work out speed)
13.04 Under M-25

At 13.07, there's the noise of motors running down and spinning up; we must be switching from third-rail to overhead lines. By now, we're on what seems to be a new stretch of track. It is - it's the CTRL I, and there's a notable speeding up as we pass the A2 near Dartford at 13.10. What will be Ebbsfleet Intl - but is currently a pile of scaffolding - is just a moment down the line. We're leaving the cars on the A2 standing now. It's been 30 minutes to the start of the fast bit, and I can see why the CTRL II will trim a quarter-hour off this figure. Over the Medway at 13.13, then through some tunnels beneath the South Downs - major ear-popping here. The end of this tunnel runs parallel to the M-20, and it's one of the few sections that isn't in a deep cutting. We reach Ashford station at 13.25, and we're on an island platform for a couple of minutes. We slow down past the Eurotunnel terminal at 13.34, and hit the UK portal at 13.36.

Just after leaving Ashford, lunch is served. This is good, not so much because there's a lot of ear-popping in the tunnel, though the pressure differences change a lot and it's moderately annoying. No, food is good because it gives us something to do while passing through the tunnel. There's nothing at all to see.

We pass through the French portal at 14.58, a 22-minute transit (during which time moved from GMT to CET), and Calais Fréthun at 15.00. I'm off to the toilets; they're small and chemical retention toilets, clearly an earlier version of those used on Virgin trains. Back at my seat, I'm a little sleepy from the glass-and-a-half of champagne they served upon departure, but the view from the window remains devoid of features. This is the TGV-Nord line, opened in 1994, serenaded by Michael Nyman's composition MGV. The run-in to Lille is lined by concrete walls. Arrive at Lille Europe's dour underground station at 15.25, and our "short stop" is almost six minutes.

There's nothing to mark the border, about 12km and perhaps four minutes after departure from Lille. Not even a couple of tatty flags on a pole, though I might have missed them given we were travelling at over 200kph. At one point, we overtake a regional train on a parallel track - it's probably doing 100kph, but feels like it's standing still. We pass the autoroute around Renboq; 1km in 17 seconds, and it does feel that we've slowed a little. Finally, we're in the suburbs of Brussels - Halle at 15.58, Ruisbrock 16.02, the stables at 16.03, and arrive at 16.09, 11 minutes ahead of schedule.

Passing out at Brussels requires one to have a passport ready, but the dozen or so immigration people were just standing around looking intimidating. The design of the arrivals hall is not brilliant - we come out one level above the main station concourse, and must descend. First come stairs, then a lift, then and only then the escalator. Gare du Midi has barely changed since I was there last, it's still a huge city station that's better than Neustraßebahnhof. One further escalator to the ticket machines, then another to the platform.

Gare du Midi is on metro line 2, the Croissant Line, with the westbound trains running on a higher platform than the eastbound ones - there's a change from right-side to left-side running at this station. I get on a train going in the correct direction, but leave at the next station, Hallesport, because there's a nutter with an accordion. One train, six stops, and six minutes later, I'm at Merode, checking the exit plan for the best way out and how to finish my trip. Ten minutes after that, I'm checked in.

In part 2: the hotel, the rest of Wednesday, and Thursday.

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