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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Rock 'n' roll from Paris to London
By Nick Higham
BBC News

On the platform at Paris Gare du Nord there was a brass band and free champagne, and more camera crews than you could count. Eurostar departures aren't normally like this, but then this was no ordinary departure.

Eurostar train
A record-setting Eurostar train arrives triumphantly at St Pancras

High speed trains are nothing new in France, but they're still a novelty in the UK where the first high speed line, across Kent, opened in 2003.

Since then Eurostar trains travelling to and from the Channel Tunnel have been able to travel lickety-spit at a notional top speed of 186mph (300 km/h) to a point just south of the Thames.

But then they have to slow right down to meander through south London on conventional train lines to Waterloo station.

The inaugural special has been laid on to take the first passengers - journalists and VIPs - from Paris to the new London terminus at St Pancras on high speed lines the entire way.

And there's no hanging about. Departing a minute earlier than advertised, at 1043 Paris time, the driver really puts his foot down.

Somewhere north of Paris, travelling across the flat plain of northern France, we hit 202mph - 320km/h.

Memories of Waterloo

The train rocks and rolls but Rob Holden assures me it's perfectly safe: he's the boss of High Speed 1, the company which built the new line, so he ought to know. He tells me 320km/h is as fast as the trains are permitted to go.

In coach eight the chief executive of French railways, Guillaume Pepy, is holding court for the French press. He's something of a media star in France - a man whose way with words and striking looks have made the country's state-owned SNCF almost sexy.

The dense thicket of French journalists blocking the aisle and almost standing on one another in an effort to hear what he says testifies to his charisma.

Eurostar ticket
A ticket from the first Eurostar train to arrive at St Pancras station

He's delighted with the new terminus at St Pancras because, as he says, French travellers coming to London will no longer be reminded of France's greatest military defeat at Waterloo.

Almost dead on noon, an hour and 16 minutes out of Paris, and we enter the Channel Tunnel.

Nigel Harris, the knowledgeable editor of Rail magazine, tells me the trains usually take 20 minutes to go through the tunnel at a top speed of 100mph.

He thinks we're going faster, which means we're on course to do the trip in a little over two hours.

I'll be using the new service when I take my family to Eurodisney next year
Michael D, Bucks

Eighteen minutes later and we emerge into sunlight on the Kent side of the channel. Soon we're doing 195mph as the North Downs flash past.

In no time we're alongside the M2, crossing the new viaduct over the Medway and slowing down for the approach to a new station at Ebbsfleet, near Gravesend, and the entrance to a new tunnel under the Thames.

The new rail link cost 5.8 billion, including the cost of refurbishing St Pancras station, but today it looks like money well spent.

Greener record

My portable GPS device tells me we've slowed to 130mph and I feel cheated that we're not going faster - even though this is comfortably above the top speed on conventional British railway lines.

As we enter the Thames tunnel there's panic among the journalists in my carriage. When you're struggling to film and edit television packages two hours isn't long - and that's all we've had. The deadline of arrival at St Pancras is fast approaching.

When we get there we're told the journey time was two hours, three minutes and 39 seconds. Not surprisingly that's a new record for the trip from London to Paris.

It'll cement Eurostar's claim that high speed rail is now a viable alternative to air travel for intercity hops in northern Europe.

The company's offering through tickets from cities in the English Midlands and the North for travellers to St Pancras and the two adjoining London termini, Kings Cross and Euston.

And Eurostar is part of a new alliance of European railway companies, Railteam, offering through tickets to continental destinations as well, much of the way on high speed lines.

What's more Eurostar claims that rail is a greener way to travel, with CO2 emissions per traveller one tenth those of air travel.

The sun is shining at St Pancras too, illuminating the beautiful pale blue cast iron of Sir William Barlow's spectacular Victorian train shed.

There's a brass band here as well - rather louder than the one in Paris - but no champagne.

Passengers will have to wait until the service opens for real on 14 November - when we're promised St Pancras will boast the longest champagne bar in Europe.

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