Let The Train Take the Strain

Ash clouds, air traffic delays, airport check in and security, mid-air turbulence and cheap flights where you scramble to find a seat? There has to be a better way of travelling between Britain and Spain thought Paul Needle after a business trip to London. For his return he decided to travel by train and completed the journey in 15 hours. He reports on the experiences for the Trader.
6 am - It is dark, damp and chilly when I arrive at London’s St Pancras International. Inside it is warm and bright with small queues to pass through the security and passport checks which are handled unobtrusively, unlike some of my recent airport security experiences. A moving walkway takes me up to platform level and to my reserved seat on board the Eurostar for Paris.
6.55 am – The train glides away – it takes a few seconds to realise we are moving. We go straight into a long tunnel emerging at Stratford International, the station that will play a key part in the 2012 Olympics. There is a quick glimpse of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge carrying the M25 motorway over the Thames – or at least there would be if it were not for the Autumn fog. As the train accelerates to its 186 mph top speed I reflect on how trains used to have to go slower in fog – modern signalling and communications has changed all that.
8.59 am - (I have put my watch forward an hour) After a 19 minute chunter through the Channel Tunnel we are racing through France heading for Lille and Paris. It is quiet, smooth and comfortable – especially with the seating in pairs, so much more sociable than the airlines triple seats and a far more environmentally friendly way to travel.
10.18 am – It is still damp and misty when I step onto the platform at Paris Nord and I have just an hour to take the rapid Metro train two stops to the Gare de Lyon which is currently a building site. The puddles and mud match the day’s weather. Spirits rise as I board the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) for Perpignan.

11.20 am
– We are threading through the Parisian suburbs, up the Seine valley and then with ever increasing speed turning South and into sunshine.  Rail enthusiasts in Britain will tell you that Brunel built the Great Western from Paddington to Bristol as level as a billiard table. The TGV hammers up mountains and streaks down the other side without taxing its powerful electric driving motors. At 200 mph the sensation is exhilarating, the views across the Rhone valley are superb and I am listening to Saint-Saens Organ Concerto on my Ipod to savour the best France can offer! First stop is at Valence then Nimes, Montpellier and Beziers, past mountains, inland lakes and the Mediterranean before we arrive at Perpignan, a little late, at 4.35 pm.
4. 54 pm – After a quick leg stretch around Perpignan station forecourt it’s all aboard a Spanish Talgo train heading for Barcelona. These coaches have seen better days and are a marked difference from the luxury of the TGV. We stop at Cerberre, the last station in France to do a little shunting, before the train moves slowly through a tunnel which marks the border. Then we ride through a half open shed where miraculously the train wheels are widened to fit the Spanish rail gauge – 9.5 inches broader than France and the UK. From here it is a slow, slow, quick, quick, slow progress to Barcelona’s Estación de Francia – a distance of some 95 miles covered in 3 hours (a glorious average of 32 mph!)
8. 05 pm – I have just 55 minutes for the two Metro trains (change at Verdaguer) to get me to Barcelona’s biggest station Sants. This is the most tiring and anxious part of my trip so far.
9.00 pm – It is good to be back in the twenty first century on a high speed AVE, the Alta Velocidad Española train from Barcelona to a new station on the outskirts of Tarragona. With some more travelling at 186 mph I arrive in just 33 minutes – half the time it takes on the old seaside route from Tarragona through Sitges.
9.45 pm I pick up the car for the 90 minute drive home to Alcossebre. I have proved to myself that London to Spain in a day is possible. It has cost me a little over £100 and been fun to do. But within months the journey will get easier and could make it possible to travel from Castellon to London in a day. I will reveal more in the next edition of the Trader.


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