A trip by Eurostar and TGV from London to Grenoble, October 2001

On Sunday 21 October 2001 I travelled from Colchester, UK to Grenoble, France, returning on Tuesday 23 October. This trip account complements that relating to my 1994 trip from London to Paris by Eurostar, in the early months of the public Eurostar service. In between, I have made two other journeys by Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel, and one by Eurotunnel shuttle with my car (but I have not written about these trips).

The journey from Colchester to London was by First Great Eastern and would not merit mention in this account were it not for the construction work recently started at Stratford to build the new International Station. Colchester is located about 100km east of London on the former Great Eastern Railway main line to Norwich. The London terminus of this railway is at Liverpool Street station, a major terminal station. Stratford is located several kilometres out from Liverpool Street, and provides an interchange with the Docklands Light Railway, the Jubilee Line of the London Underground network, and the North London Line, as well as buses. The International Station will be served by Eurostars (and maybe one day other international trains) running from London St Pancras station to the Channel Tunnel and beyond over the new Channel Tunnel rail link now under construction. Evidence of construction work on the new Stratford International Station is provided by several cranes visible from passing trains. A large area adjacent to the existing railway has been cleared, and a sub-surface box will be built there to house the new station (the trains will be running in tunnel at this point, so the station will be below ground level).

At the moment, there are only two international stations in the UK served by Eurostar trains: London Waterloo International and Ashford International. My Eurostar journey started from Waterloo, and I took the 14.10 service to Brussels/Bruxelles, changing at Lille Europe, where there are now excellent connecting TGV services to many parts of France. Through ticketing is available on Eurostar to many destinations in Europe, marketed under the name Eurostar Plus, and Grenoble happens to be one of the destinations included.

My journey from Waterloo to Lille was slow until we reached the Channel Tunnel. Nothing much has changed since my 1996 trip, except that work is now visible on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) which will at last provide a high-speed line in Britain between the tunnel and London. The work is particularly noticeable between Ashford and the Tunnel. At Ashford there are flyovers under construction to take the new tracks over the older routes. Between Ashford and Dollands Moor freight sidings near the Tunnel, the new route runs alongside the old, and the work is well advanced, with many of the bridges complete. Between Ashford and London the CTRL takes a new route, and mostly it cannot be seen from the Eurostars.

Just before entering the Tunnel we passed Dollands Moor freight sidings where freight trains are checked before departure for France. There were several trains in the sidings. Diesel-hauled freights change their locomotives here. There is only one type of locomotive which can work freight trains through the Tunnel: the class 92 electric locomotive, built for British Rail and SNCF in the 1990s. These locomotives can, and do, work freights from locations in Britain well-removed from the Tunnel (Crewe, for example) and they are equipped for 25kV AC overhead, and 750V DC third rail operation (as are the Eurostars). They usually work only a short distance into France, mainly to Calais Frethun yard, from where French locomotives take over.

Between Dollands Moor sidings and the Tunnel entrance we passed the Eurotunnel terminal. Eurotunnel operates a road vehicle shuttle service through the Tunnel between its Folkestone and Calais terminals. Cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles are all carried by this service, but on different types of train. The car shuttles are double deck, with single deck vehicles for larger vehicles, caravans and buses. Trucks are carried on open-frame wagons, with an enclosed passenger coach for the truck drivers to ride in. The various types of shuttle train are pulled and pushed by Eurotunnel shuttle locomotives, one at each end of each train. These are unusual locomotives, built to standard Berne loading gauge, so that they can be sent over ordinary rail routes to locomotive works in Europe (but not Britain) for overhaul. The shuttle vehicles are much too large for this, and these must be maintained and overhauled on the Eurotunnel system.

Once through the Tunnel, we accelerated to the normal 300km/hour speed over the French high-speed line, and arrived at Lille Europe, where I left the Eurostar, just after 2 hours after leaving Waterloo. Lille Europe is a four-platform station served by Eurostars and TGVs, and it was to a TGV service that I changed. I had an hour or so to wait. The station is built with a long concourse over the top of two high speed through tracks, with a double faced platform either side at the same level as the through tracks. The station was built new in the mid-1990s. There are waiting rooms and refreshment facilities on the concourse, a large clear departures board, and screens showing train destinations and compositions, so it is easy to change trains there and connect for destinations elsewhere. Announcements are made in French and English.

I took train 5132, the 18.29 TGV to Grenoble, which called at three intermediate stations in a four and a half hour journey: Roissy Aeroport Charles de Gaulle and Marne la Vallée/Chessy, both just outside Paris, to the east of the city; and Lyon Part Dieu. We departed from Lille coupled to train 5131 to Besançon, and I assume we separated at Marne la Vallée/Chessy. It is common practice to run TGV sets coupled together for part of a journey, in this case to save a train path over the LGV Nord, but the same applies in cases like Paris to Lausanne/Berne where two sets can run coupled together for most of the distance to Switzerland.

Roissy Aeroport CDG and Marne la Vallée/Chessy are located on the Interconnexion, which bypasses Paris to the east, and connects the LGV Nord (the high speed line from Paris to Lille, London and Brussels) with the original LGV Sud-Est from Paris to Lyon (and now the extension to the south known as TGV Mediteranée which runs to Marseille -- somewhere along the line the distinction between LGV (ligne) and TGV (train à grande vitesse) has been dropped). We came off the LGV Sud-Est to reach Lyon Part Dieu, and then ran over 'classic' tracks from Lyon to Grenoble. One of the clever things about the TGV is that it can run over ordinary electrified tracks, which it can share with conventional (slower) trains. Most of the journey from Lille to Grenoble was over high speed line, and we were able to travel at between 270 and 300 km/hour for most of the way, but we also travelled at conventional speeds over the route from Lyon to Grenoble. Many French classic lines are electrified at 1500V DC with overhead wires, and the TGVs can operate from this voltage, as well as the European standard 25kV AC used on the high speed lines. Our arrival in Grenoble was an hour late, which was not good, because the scheduled time was 22.52, and this meant I arrived at around midnight. The delay was caused by a failed freight train not far from Grenoble, which we eventually bypassed by running 'wrong line' (i.e. on the right-hand track).

Two days later, on the Tuesday, having spent Monday and part of Tuesday morning on business in Grenoble, I departed by conventional SNCF train (electrically hauled) to Lyon Part Dieu. This is not a new station, and it is served by both TGV and conventional trains. My connection (correspondance in French) at Lyon Part Dieu gave me an hour or so to wait. While there I saw an Italian State Railways train depart for Milano. I also saw many freights including car-carriers and container trains.

The TGV ride back to Lille was much the same as the outward journey, but it is perhaps worth remarking on the prices in the bar car. At the time of the trip described here, France (and eleven other European Union countries) were in the last stages of converting from national currencies to the Euro. For some months prices have been shown in shops and restaurants (and on board Eurostars and TGVs) in national currencies, with the Euro equivalents alongside. On my outward trip the TGV bar prices were in French francs (that is, round numbers in francs, expressed in Euros to the nearest cent). The TGV on which I returned however, had been through the next step in the conversion, and the prices had been converted to round sums in Euros, with the equivalent in French francs expressed in smaller print. Since the Euro notes and coins were not yet in circulation (this happens on January 1 2002), I had to pay using French francs. I bought a beer (2.80 EUR) and a bottle of mineral water (2.10 EUR), totalling 4.90 EUR. Converted to francs at the fixed and irrevocable exchange rate of 6.55957, this amounted to 32.14 FRF. I happened to have some centimes, and was able to tender 32.15 FRF. There was no change of course, because a centime is a tiny amount and the smallest coin in circulation in France is 5 centimes, worth about 1 Euro cent.

I arrived a little late at Lille, but was not inconvenienced as my schedule allowed for about an hour and a half at Lille. I left at 21.14 on a Eurostar from Paris to London which was running about 5 minutes late (shown as retard 5mn on the departure board). This train was not busy, unlike the TGV from Lyon, and my coach had only 10 or so passengers. Our scheduled arrival time at London Waterloo was 22.13, and this perhaps accounts for the relative unpopularity of the service, since anyone with an onward journey from London (like me) will arrive at their destination very late (I arrived in Colchester at around midnight, having caught the 23.00 service for Ipswich from Liverpool Street, after making some quite lucky connections on the Underground).

On board the Eurostar, I used my last French bank note (100 francs) to buy another beer and some chips (French fries), and asked for (and got) the change in English currency because I had no likelihood of visiting France again before January or later, and I didn't want to be stuck with French money which I could not spend. Next time I visit France I shall return with some spare Euros I expect, but I will not need to exchange them. I can simply keep them and spend them on my next trip to any of the 12 Eurozone countries. (The UK is not in the Eurozone, yet.)

Passport checks were carried out on the train, which saves time at Waterloo as there is no need to have them checked again. This is not universal practice, but given the late night arrival and my desire to make a smart dash for the Underground to get to Liverpool Street station, it was very welcome.

For links to websites related to this account (e.g. Eurostar, Eurotunnel), please see my 1994 trip account.

Steve Sangwine, GB.

Email the author: sjs@essex.ac.uk.

Created 5 November 2001, amended 30 June 2011