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I'd arrived in Amsterdam, settled in and begun my studies. But one of the advantages of picking Amsterdam was the easy access to travel to other European countries while living there. When I was originally planning my trip, I noticed it was possible to leave Amsterdam after breakfast, pass through two other countries, and arrive in London by lunchtime - and on one of the last warm days of Autumn I did just that. I would arrive into London on the Eurostar, but the train I boarded at Amsterdam Centraal was a Thalys train headed for Paris. At Bruxelles-Midi station, I had to change from the Thalys to the Eurostar; we had about a 45 minute gap between trains, to give us time to make the connection, but even this gap proved to be cutting it a bit fine.
As I covered in a previous post, when you're travelling by HSR within the Schengen zone there's no need to go through passport control and get a visa stamp. There may be visual inspections of passports, but that generally happens on the train itself and doesn't cause a heap of stress. However when you're going to the UK, you do need to go through passport control and get a visa stamp - it's fundamentally very similar to flying. The Eurostar has been going to Paris and Brussels for ages, so all the customs arrangements are well and truly sorted at London St Pancras, Paris Gare du Nord, and Bruxelles-Midi - but they've only started going to Amsterdam more recently, and the customs arrangements at Amsterdam Centraal have not yet been finalised. So there's a weird asymmetrical situation: going to London, Amsterdam passengers need to change trains at Brussels to go through passport control there. But the Dutch are happy to accept the assurances of the Schengen customs officers in London, so you can have a one-seat journey when you head back to Amsterdam.
Eurostar checkin and passport control at Bruxelles-Midi (source)
When I arrived at Bruxelles-Midi that first time, I'd downloaded the map that shows you where to go when exiting the Thalys train, but this seemed to have gotten things backwards because it sent me the wrong way - I immediately went down the stairs and turned left, and I wandered around the station for a good ten minutes before the signs pointed me to the Eurostar terminal (which as it turns out was just to the right of the staircase I'd come down). I only just checked in before the cutoff - which is 30 minutes before the train leaves, to allow time for you to go through security and passport control.
There is an argument that goes "travel by train is so much easier than flying, you just rock up in the centre of the city, and off you go." Which is used to offset the fact that the train journey itself is slower than the flight - the lack of faffing about evens the odds. Having done a few trips now, I can say that this is completely true within the Schengen zone - it's a breeze - but it's less true going to the UK. It's still easier than flying...just less so.
Having to line up and go through passport control three times (twice at Bruxelles-Midi, once at St Pancras) added ages to my total journey time to London. It also adds considerably to the stress of the journey - you can control how early you get to Amsterdam Centraal, and arrive earlier if you are a nervous traveller, but you can't really control how early you arrive at Bruxelles-Midi. On a later trip to London the Thalys was 20 minutes late, and despite rushing straight to the Eurostar terminal I again only just made it before the cutoff.
Going in the other direction, it was easier - you just go through French passport control at St Pancras, and the train goes all the way to Amsterdam without requiring you to change trains - and of course my trips were many months ago now. One-seat journeys from Amsterdam were slated to commence in April 2020 (though I don't know how COVID-19 has affected this).
Of course, in the context of Australia's policy debate on HSR (or indeed if I were weighing in on America's debate) this isn't really a factor - it'll all be for long-distance domestic travel, so no passports required. Still - it does help demonstrate just how valuable the Schengen zone is to making it seamless to travel between countries in continental Europe.
I arrived into London at St Pancras International, and immediately walked down the road to Euston for my train to Liverpool. Like in Paris, you can take the Tube between the various London termini, but in this case it's less than a kilometre down the road so I just walked it.
Euston has similar issues to the French stations - you only get told which platform your train's leaving from quite soon before departure, so you have to stand around waiting for the information board to update, in a big room with minimal seating. Once we'd sorted that out though, it was a pretty quick and easy process to board, and the - surprisingly empty - train was speeding off through the brightly-lit British countryside towards Liverpool.
Stay tuned for Part 2, covering Liverpool and York
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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