Eurostar set a record time of 1 h 43 min from Brussels to its new London St Pancras terminus on September 20. Murray Hughes was on board

ON SEPTEMBER 20 a special Eurostar dashed from Brussels Midi to London St Pancras via the completed Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now known as High Speed 1. Covering the 373 km in 1 h 43 min at an average speed of 217·3 km/h, the train undercut the 1 h 51 min non-stop timing scheduled for commercial services from November 14. A similar special had run from Paris to St Pancras on September 4, completing the trip in 2 h 3 min.

Speaking on the evening before the Brussels run, SNCB Chief Executive Marc Descheemaecker said that while other people celebrated more sales or more profit, 'we will celebrate less time'. He noted that Brussels was 'a perfect hub', and confirmed that 'Eurostar is very important to Belgium.'

Eurostar Chief Executive Richard Brown said 'we are putting Brussels – London very firmly into the 2 h club', and announced that 'tomorrow we will make a small piece of history'. Next morning, as Train 9125 left Midi to a champagne send-off at 11.05 with around 700 guests on board, Brown said 'we are looking to set a new record', but warned that there had been problems in the Channel Tunnel earlier that morning.

Streaking across the flat Belgian landscape under a watery sun, the train soon slowed for the junction at Fretin and swept through Lille Europe at 11.34. Accelerating away from the graffiti-strewn walls of the Lille suburbs, driver Luc Stockx was obliged to brake all too soon because of a speed restriction imposed where World War I trenches had been discovered below the tracks. The Channel Tunnel was entered 54 min after leaving Brussels, and we emerged into British sunshine at 11.18 local time – it later transpired that single-line working had been in force in the tunnel and that a 60 km/h temporary speed restriction had been imposed near the British portal. Only after we had passed Lille was the train crew told that the restriction was being lifted.

British driver David Green had by now taken charge, and Train 9125 flew past Ashford at 11.24. We tore over the Medway viaduct as a two-car Networker crept below on the Maidstone – Strood line, and just 90 min after leaving Brussels we passed Southfleet Junction and raced onto Section 2 of High Speed 1. Ebbsfleet station flashed by on our right a minute later, before we plunged into the tunnel under the River Thames. There were fleeting glimpses of the elegant Queen Elizabeth II road bridge over the river before we sprinted across the marshlands near Rainham. Moments later, we had entered the long London approach tunnel, emerging briefly to see the unfinished station at Stratford International as the brakes squealed for the final kilometres into St Pancras which was visible from the sharply-curved approach tracks. We drew to a halt under William Barlow's famous and superbly-restored trainshed at 11.48. Other Eurostars were resting in adjacent platforms, and a band welcomed the excited crowd pouring off our train.

Eurostar used the trip to publicise through fares from 70 UK stations to Paris and Brussels, which Brown said would go on sale on November 14, initially from Eurostar's call centre. Including check-in time at St Pancras, Birmingham to Brussels will take 4 h 25 min and Birmingham – Paris 4 h 45 min. Manchester to Brussels is timed at 5 h 10 min and Paris in 5 h 30 min, with a York – Brussels trip taking 4 h 50 min and York – Paris 5 h 10 min. Eurostar will run an interim service from November 14 until December 9, when further trains will be added.

According to Brown, Eurostar expects traffic to grow by 25% over the next three to four years, reaching 10 million passengers a year in 2010. He said that a through London – Amsterdam service remains a long-term ambition, but problems with ETCS Level 2 on HSL-Zuid between Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam precluded this for now.

  • CAPTION: Belgian driver Luc Stockx and his British collegue David Green were at the controls for the special run
  • CAPTION: The line threads beneath the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the approach to London

Reduced journey times

Fastest timings
(via Section 1)
St Pancras
(completed line)
London to Channel Tunnel 55 min 31 min
London to Lille 1 h 40 min 1 h 20 min
London to Brussels 2 h 15 min 1 h 51 min
London to Paris 2 h 35 min 2 h 15 min
Expected domestic journey times using HS1 from 2009
St Pancras to Ebbsfleet 17 min
St Pancras to Ashford 40 min
St Pancras to Folkestone 57 min
St Pancras to Canterbury West 63 min