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When you're hopping around Europe on business, flying isn't the only option – even for the relatively short trip from London to Paris.
In fact, especially for shuttling between those two cities, the high-speed Eurostar train makes extraordinary sense: Australian Business Traveller took a trip on Eurostar's London-to-Paris service in the 'Business Premier' class to try it out.
St Pancras International Station
The London terminus for Eurostar is St Pancras International Station – and yes, it does seem odd for a railway station to have ‘International’ in its name.
Adjacent to Kings Cross station, and well-served by London Underground lines feeding into the combined King’s Cross St. Pancras tube station, St Pancras International is a grand Victorian-era railway station. (It's also home to Marriott's suitably swish St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London.)
One of the many benefits of high-speed rail over air travel is that you don’t need to arrive to the station anywhere near as early as you would at the airport – but the first time you visit St Pancras you should make an exception.
This stunningly-restored building, with a spectacular glass-and-steel roof arching over the platforms, is a treat to tour.
Its many shops, cafes, restaurants and bars – including the The St Pancras Grand and The Champagne Bar – deserve to be relished rather than rushed past, and with free wi-fi throughout the station you can even catch up on email.
A fast-track check-in zone lets Eurostar’s Business Premier passengers scoot into the station as little as 10 minutes before their train departs.
There’s also a dedicated security lane – no need to remove your laptop, shoes and belt – and passport control area, after which you're in the station’s ‘boarding lounge’ zone – the area past security, which in aviation parlance would be 'airside' (maybe here it's called 'train-side'?).
It took just five minutes to go from the outside check-in desk to the Business Premier lounge, and that was during peak hour on a Monday morning.
Unfortunately, outside in the terminal itself there's precious little in the way of facilities: just a Cafe Nero with a long line and a small WH Smith newsagency.
So if you’re not travelling in Business Premier class and thus don’t have access to the lounge, you'd be better off grabbing something decent to read, eat or drink on your journey from the wealth of shops in the main area of St Pancras before you check in.
The boarding process is hassle-free, provided you check the carriage number on your ticket and follow the station’s signs to ensure you end up at the correct part of the platform.
After all, Eurostar trains are long – we’re talking about 18 passenger cars with 766 seats, or just over twice the capacity of a Qantas Boeing 747.
Eurostar trains begin boarding 20 minutes before departure so you can stroll up to the platform, settle into your seat and relax (or pull our your laptop and start working, without being told to switch it off 10 minutes before departure!).
There are luggage areas at either end of each carriage plus spacious overhead racks running above the seats.
The above-seat racks include an upper shelf for larger bags and a smaller lower shelf suitable for coats, laptop bags and the like.
All Eurostar Business Premier carriages have a 1-2 layout: a row of single seats down one side of the train, with banks of paired seats across the aisle.
The high-back seats are a comfortable 20 inches wide, and you can gain another three inches of room around the waist if you swing up the armrest.
Contributing to the feeling of space are the long wide windows, with shades you can nudge down to keep out the light (if you'd rather work than enjoy the scenery).
Most of the singles and doubles have a 37 inch seat pitch, resulting in legroom that’s roughly equivalent to premium economy in a Qantas A380.
All Eurostar bookings specify a reserved seat. If you want a seat in Business Premier’s single row, book a seat number ending in 1 or 5 – all the others are doubles.
If you’re travelling with a colleague or partner, you can choose a pair of seats facing each other over a generously-sized table.
This is called a ‘Club 2’ and there are four pairs per carriage – at seats 11/15, 31/35, 61/65 and 71/75.
Even if you’re travelling alone, a Club 2 is worth booking if you value extra legroom – you’ll get a whopping 76 inches of stretching space.
Travelling with three or four colleagues? Book a Club 4, which is the double-seat equivalent of a Club 2 (the seating groups are 13/14/17/18, 33/34/37/38, 63/64/67/68 and 73/74/77/78).
(If you’re in carriage number 10, however, you’ll find all the seats in Club 2 and Club 4 configuration.)
Each seat sports a decent recline which also nudges the bottom of the seat forward, but reclined seats don’t intrude into the space of the person behind you – and in turn, the passenger in front can’t steal any of your space.
This is similar arrangement to ‘fixed shell’ airline seats such as Cathay Pacific economy class but it’s infinitely more comfortable due to the Eurostar seat’s ample padding, more inbuilt lumbar support and better contour, and of course all that extra legroom.
That said, you can’t help but notice that the seats, in fact the entire cabin interiors, look a little tired and well-worn: not surprising, given these trains were built almost 20 years ago and they run some 24 services per day.
That'll change next year, when Eurostar begins a fleet-wide upgrade of all seats and interiors; this will be followed by the arrival of sleek new Eurostar e320 trains starting in 2013.
As you’d expect from a business class service, Business Premier includes a full meal, in this case designed by three-star Michelin chef Alain Roux.
Breakfast served during the morning journey from London to Paris included a organic smoked salmon, a light croissant, a sweet pastry, fruit juice and yoghurt plus some surprisingly good coffee. (You can download a sample dinner menu from the Eurostar website).
There are also two kiosk-style dining cars on the Eurostar, not that you’d need anything else to eat or drink on the two hour sprint.
The bi-fold tables sitting between the Plus 2 and Plus 4 seats naturally provide the most space...
... but the fold-down seat-back trays in all other seats are sufficiently wide and deep so you can comfortable work on a mid-sized notebook with a 15 inch screen.
Even in a single seat you can swing both the aisle-side and window-side armrests up and out of the way for extra width.
Raising the aisle-side armrest also makes it easier to slide out of your seat (and slide back in again) while the tray table remains down.
Every seat in Business Premier class has access to an AC power socket, although sadly they’re not the international all-plugs-welcome design – these sockets alternate between UK and European plugs from one seat to the next, so keep your adaptor plug handy if you want to top up your laptop’s battery en route.
Something which may surprise travellers is the lack of wi-fi Internet on the train. This is also in the works, say Eurostar, beginning from 2013 – and will include Internet access in the 50km Channel tunnel (just so you don’t have to suffer from 20 minutes of disconnectivity).
We noted many travellers using 3G USB dongles in their notebooks, or 3G-equipped iPads, to stay connected during the journey on either side of the tunnel.
A little over two hours after leaving London's St Pancras International, the Eurostar pulled into Paris' equally-elegant Gare du Nord station.
The trip proved fast, smooth, relaxing and productive – not adjectives that can always be applied to flying, especially with all the associated headaches surrounding security, arriving over an hour before boarding, and getting to and from the airport.
So next time I need to go from London to Paris (or back the other way) I'll be taking the train.