Cologne again, naturally (#TågFärjetur part 2)

Photo of St Pancras station entrance

Day 1 (Friday 18 October) continued:
15.04 London St Pancras to Brussels Midi
18.25 Brussels Midi to Cologne Hauptbahnhof

As we approached St Pancras, Paul was excited at the prospect of seeing the Spice Girls’ Entrance.

That’s not some weird euphemism – the video for their debut single Wannabe was filmed in and around the station’s Grand Hotel. Even if you don’t recognise it, the caption “St Pancras Grand Hotel” appearing 6 seconds in gives the game away.

Incidentally, while writing this blog post, I looked up when this song came out, and it turns out it was in NINETEEN NINETY SIX, which is impossible because I remember it from when I was young, and I’m STILL YOUNG NOW, DAMN IT.

Where was I? Oh yes, St Pancras. We had to settle for the regular, non-Girl Power door, which is still fairly impressive. St Pancras is a railway cathedral, the type of place the Victorians built purely to show off how much metal and glass they could put together.

Photo of St Pancras station

Almost pulled down by uncaring modernisers in the 1960s, St Pancras was saved largely thanks to a campaign led by John Betjeman. The great man is now immortalised in statue form on the station concourse. The statue shows him looking up at the station’s great roof in awe, a pose which is repeated by many of the station’s users on a daily basis.

John Bet

The coming of Eurostar trains in 2007 cemented St Pancras’s place as the UK’s flagship railway station, an international hub to rival Grand Central Terminal in New York or the Gare du Nord in Paris, a starting point for wondrous journeys to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and… Leicester.

With one eye on the clock (a strict 30-minute check in deadline being imposed by Eurostar for all its trains) we headed to the Betjeman Arms for burger and a pint (well, I had a pint – Paul is a man of refined tastes and had a glass of wine). It was a nice lunch, but suffered from the problem that so many restaurants have: at exactly the moment we wanted to pay the bill and leave, the waiting staff seemed to disappear. A bit awkward when you are getting close to a train departure time.

Photo of Burger, Fries and a Pint

We did eventually pay and headed on down to the Eurostar check in. Our DB tickets did not work the automatic ticket gates, so we headed to the manual check-in desk where our details were tapped into a computer and a boarding pass produced.

Security on Eurostar, as with airports, is a FAFF. Less restrictive than at airports (no liquid bans, for one thing) but still stressful. Going through two passport checks in quick succession is also a little odd: the first is UK Border Control logging you leaving the country, while the second is French passport control checking you can travel to France.

Photo of Eurostar train at platform at St Pancras

But that is only a couple of minutes and we were soon called up to the platform where our train – a new Eurostar e320, was waiting for us. My previous trips on Eurostar have all been on the “classic” units, the modestly-named TransManche Super Trains, so the chance to ride a newer train to Brussels was an added bonus. I travelled on Eurostar with my friend Ian in 2014 – back then, the original trains were showing their age, “a vision of the 21st century as imagined at the time of the poll tax and Clive Anderson Talks Back”. With the new trains, and most of the older trains refurbished (or scrapped), things have certainly improved.

Photo of Eurostar e320 interior

As we sped through the tunnels under London and out into the Kent countryside, touching the maximum speed of 320kph, I did feel a tinge of regret that I never rode Eurostar in its early days, before High Speed 1 opened, when the Eurostar trains had to negotiate their way through the normal British Rail network alongside Network SouthEast commuter trains. I’m sure seeing one of these trundling through Clapham Junction would have been quite a sight.

Then, WHOOSH. Into darkness for 20 minutes. The Channel Tunnel may be an engineering marvel, but the experience of actually travelling through it is rather mundane. There is nothing to see out of the window of course, and no fanfare or announcement when we emerge into France. If it were up to me, I would play a snatch of La Marseillaise over the PA system as we exited the Chunnel. Also, I would insist that everyone starts calling it the Chunnel again.

Photo of Metropoilitan magazine with boarding pass and passport

It’s been a quarter of a century since Eurostar services began, and the notion of being able to catch a train under the English Channel and into a different country remains a wonderfully romantic idea for me. I hope the novelty never wears off.

A quick stop at Lille, and a few more passengers joined – once through the Chunnel, Eurostar becomes a normal TGV-style service. We were soon under way again, heading for the Belgian border and Brussels.

I started to feel thirsty. That burger in St Pancras was tasty but salty, and my throat was dry. Paul had planned ahead and packed his “travelling water”, but I had not thought to bring anything, so had to head to the buffet car. It was 4 coaches away, which seemed a very long way when walking through, trying not to spill a cup of coffee.

Eurostar coffee cup

Europe has been busy trying to dismantle its borders, or at least make them as invisible as possible. As we discovered later in our journey, they haven’t gone away completely, but on this part of the journey, the only hint that we had crossed into Belgium was the arrival of a text message informing me that my phone had roamed onto a new network.

Arrival into Brussels was on time, which I was pleased about: we had a twenty minute connection onto our next train, and Brussels Midi station can be difficult to navigate. I proved this as I completely failed to find the “connections corridor” (the shortcut from the Eurostar platforms which takes you straight to the subway between platforms) and had to double-back, fighting against the tide of people coming the other way to reach the escalator.

There was just enough time to snap a picture of the outside of the station, before heading back to catch the DB InterCity Express service to Cologne.

A gleaming ICE 3 train was waiting for us. My friend Scott once described the ICE as “a train that seemed to be going ridiculously fast when it was standing still” and it is so true.

DB ICE3 train at Brussels

Last time I travelled on the ICE, I had treated myself to first class. Budgetary constraints this time around had forced me to retreat to standard (or 2nd class as they still call it on the continent) but I needn’t have worried. The seat was comfortable, the legroom was impressive, and every fixture and fitting seemed to have been designed to be as classy as possible. Overall, I would say it was better than 1st class on Virgin Trains earlier that day. No at-seat service, but the BordBistro buffet car was in the next coach if I needed it.

Interior of DB ICE train

A quick stop at Liège, and before long another text message from Three confirmed that we had crossed into Germany. Sure enough we were soon rolling into the border town of Aachen.

It was at this point that I spotted an oddity in our itinerary: it was now 19.40, and our tickets showed that arrival into Cologne was due at 21.18. My European geography isn’t perfect, but I knew that it should not take over 90 minutes to make the 90km journey to Cologne.

My questions were answered when we reversed out of Aachen station and left the high speed line. Yes, we were the victim of essential engineering works, and our train was following a diversionary route along a local line. The electronic displays, which had previously boasted that we were travelling at around 250kph, now read closer to 80kph. It might have been kinder to turn them off.

I wasn’t too bothered by this. Our itinerary clearly took the engineering works into account, hence the extended journey time to Cologne shown on our tickets. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see out of the window as we chugged through North-Rhine-Westphalia. I went to the Bordbistro to get a bottle of Coke, and settled in for the long ride.

Our line hugged the Germany-Netherlands border, so close that my phone picked up a Dutch mobile phone signal. Opening Google Maps, it appeared we were heading for Mönchengladbach, which really was a long way off the normal route.

We didn’t quite make it all the way there, though. Instead we halted at Rheydt, on the southern edge of the town, for the train to reverse again. The guard advised us that we would be here for several minutes while the crew changed ends, and opened the doors for people to have a smoke get some fresh air.

Paul stepped outside for a moment, and captured this video, which was enough to fool at least one person into thinking the train had left without him (no such luck).

We set off again, now actually heading towards Cologne, rather than away from it. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we lost time, and ended up arriving in Cologne about 10 minutes late on our amended schedule. We were fortunate that this was actually the longest delay we had on any part of the trip (at least until we got back to the UK, of which more later… GRRR)

I did get to observe some curiously German behaviour, where everyone started gathering their things and heading for the doors, despite the train being obviously nowhere near Cologne station. I’m always quick to succumb to peer pressure, so we did exactly the same, and had to stand up for ages in the vestibule.

Photo of ICE train at Cologne Hauptbahnhof

Our wait was extended still further as the guard announced there would be a brief pause while we coupled to another train. This was especially frustrating – we could see the platform but the doors remained firmly locked. Eventually, after several minutes, they were opened, and we stepped out onto the platform, where there was indeed another train waiting… and we had not coupled to it.

Cologne is beautiful, but opportunities for sightseeing at that time of night are rather limited. The cathedral is exceptionally pretty at any time of day, though. Putting the main station in the same square is, I think, just showing off.

Cologne Cathedral at night

“I was starting to think you weren’t going to arrive,” said the receptionist at our hotel when we finally checked in at close to 10pm. There had been just a couple of moments on that longer-than-expected trip when I had thought the same thing.

And when in Cologne, where did we go to eat? McDonalds, for the second burger of the day. We are so cultured.

Drink, "Doppel Chicken" burger and fries