The Epic Railway Journey

England to Sweden by Train

Day 1 - Derby to Brussels

UK flag
At half past seven on the morning of Sunday, 29th July, we set out from our home in Sinfin on the first leg of our journey: to Derby station. Although almost all of our travel would be by steel wheel on steel rail, this leg was of necessity by rubber tyre on tarmac road, in the form of a taxi. The passenger rail service from Sinfin has been defunct for a number of years, and was never very convenient anyway: a very infrequent service from a station tucked away among factories, a long walk from the housing estates. Moreover, unlike our near neighbour Nottingham which has a modern tram system under construction, Derby is not to be provided with any such facility in the foreseeable future.

0758 Derby to London St Pancras: 207km

Midland Mainline Turbostar at Derby Midland Mainline Turbostar - interior

Our train from Derby to London St Pancras is a Midland Mainline Turbostar. These new units are not intended to replace the Intercity 125s that also operate on the line, but rather to supplement them, mainly for shorter journeys. However, early on a Sunday morning, there is no choice, so a Turbostar it has to be. We soon discover that there are two flavours of first class on these trains! As initially built, first class was one of the end compartments of the unit, and not particularly comfortable - standard class with added antimacassars might be an appropriate description. However, the evidence is that Midland Mainline do attend to their customers' needs, and we are invited by the train manager to move to one of the newer first class saloons, situated in the additional centre carriage with which these trains are now being equipped. These have much larger, more comfortable seats and generally a very good ambience. The Turbostars are slightly noisier than the Intercity 125s (a consequence of having a diesel engine under every vehicle) and lack a buffet car facility, but the catering trolley makes frequent visits. Teas and coffees on Midland Mainline are free - to standard class passengers, as well as to first class! Note for the "mile bashers" - Sunday engineering works on this occasion take us on an interesting short diversion via the freight line through Wymington. In spite of this, we arrive in St Pancras station well on time.

London Underground: 5km

Bakerloo Line train at Oxford Circus

In a few years' time, St Pancras will become the London terminus of the cross-channel Eurostar trains and changing trains for those of us fortunate enough to live in the East Midlands will be simply a matter of a short walk. However, at present, you need to cross London, to Waterloo station. As first class travellers carrying luggage, a taxi would be the obvious mode of transport, but we decided to stick to our principles of steel wheel on steel rail wherever possible, so we take the Underground. Taking big luggage on the escalators is a bit of a bind, but at least there are special gates at the automatic barriers through which you can put your cases. A little local knowledge helps, too: there is no direct Underground line from King's Cross St Pancras to Waterloo, you have to change; but the best route is not the most obvious one from the Underground map. If you take the Victoria line to Oxford Circus, then change to the Bakerloo line, you benefit from a cross-platform interchange at Oxford Circus, saving you quite a few escalators and staircases!

Check-in for the Eurostar at Waterloo International could not be easier; simply put your ticket in the entry gate, just like the Underground. There is an airport style security check, and a passport check (now a rarity when travelling within Europe - the only time we had to show ours was to get out of, and back into, England!), then you are in the departure hall. Last check-in is just 20 minutes before the departure of your train - some airlines could learn a lesson from that! However, we have allowed considerably more time to spare in case of delays on our way from Derby, so we have plenty of time to explore the gift shops.

1222 London Waterloo to Bruxelles Midi / Brussel Zuid: 376km

UK flag French flag Belgian flag
Eurostar - interior Eurostar at Brussels

The Eurostar service between London and Paris or Brussels has been operating very successfully for a number of years, since the opening of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Although the trains are beginning to show their age in places (notably some wear and tear on the carpets) they are still very clean and comfortable and a pleasure to travel in. The meal (included in the price of your first class ticket) was the best we encountered on any of our trains. Being served airline style, the quality is perhaps not as good as it could be if the food were prepared freshly on board, nevertheless it is very acceptable, quite substantial, and with a reasonable choice. Wine is also free (including the champagne!), as is the almost unlimited supply of tea and coffee afterwards.

After a leisurely meander through the byways of Kent (to be replaced over the course of the next few years by a decent modern main line), and a somewhat faster but still necessarily speed restricted run through the Channel Tunnel, the train is really able to show its paces, briefly touching 300km/h (186mph) on the plains of northern France before slowing for the station stop at Lille. Even at that speed, there is no sensation of hurry; simply of the countryside gliding past outside the window. Another high speed sprint, this time across Belgium, and we arrive on time in Brussels. There is a short delay while we go through passport control, and then we can join the:

Brussels Metro: 3km

Brussels Metro

Our hotel in Brussels is right next to the Metro station at Porte de Namur / Naamsepoort, a short and very convenient ride from the South station on the smart and efficient modern Metro system.

Belgium has two main languages, French and Dutch. French is mainly spoken in the southern part of the country (Wallonie), Dutch in the north (Vlaanderen, or Flanders). There is also a small German speaking region in the East. Brussels (Bruxelles or Brussel) is geographically in Flanders, but is actually bilingual, with French tending slightly to predominate. Fortunately, English is widely spoken, so that is a good language in which to open a conversation.

After settling into our hotel, we enjoy a very pleasant meal in a nearby restaurant before taking a short walk past the Royal Palaces and into the City Centre and the lively Grande Place. The cafés and restaurants are busy, there are many people about but without a sense of being crowded, and with a general air of people enjoying themselves. Even though it is quite late on a Sunday evening, many of the shops are still open. We spend a little time here before returning to our hotel for the night.

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Text and photographs © 2001-2002 Glyn Williams
except London Underground photograph © 2000 Tubeprune
and Brussels Metro photograph © 2001 Pierre Berquin
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