Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Shanghai to London Part 13 (the final chapter!)

Berlin- London

We say goodbye to Berlin on one of these stylish ICE trains.
The final leg of our epic journey from Shanghai to London starts from where we left the last train- the upper level of Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Gone are the loco hauled trains we have been using since China, in their place for the trip to Cologne is a pair of sleek modern German ICE trains. We are on the rear portion of the train which will split en-route with the front half travelling to Dusseldorf.

The ICE is vastly more comfortable than any of the other trains we have used so far. It has large padded seats which recline slightly in an open saloon complete with power points and window blinds, the First Class facilities are even more exuberant. The train features a Board Restaurant selling meals and snacks- it looks a lot more modern than the Russian dining cars!

The interior of the ICE is comfortable and modern-
 and quite unlike the Russian style sleepers!
We are lucky that our reserved seats on the train are around a table with good views through the window, although the other seats in this bay of four are reserved we do not gain any company until well into the journey. The journey on the ICE is smooth and quiet with quite the best ride quality we have yet experienced- my handwriting is looking dramatically neater and we joke that there would be no trouble getting to sleep on this train.

Admiring the German landscape before the weather finally descends!
Having traveled a large part of the length of Germany and with the landscape and weather (which was finally changing for the worst) having altered considerably we arrive into Cologne. We have around half an hour here to complete our change onto the next ICE to Brussels. Cologne Hauptbahnhof is a large and busy station with an impressive overall roof (which is itself dwarfed by the magnificent Cathedral next to it) with many services departing on all of local, regional, intercity and international routes.

We change trains at Köln (Cologne) leaving the
conventional ICE behind, and joining a more
modern Siemens ICE 3 multiple unit.
Our train to Brussels is an ICE 3, as used on all of the international services. Interestingly the train design is almost identical to the Siemens product produced for China’s railways which we traveled on from Shanghai. The Deutsche Bahn variety is however much better appointed internally with 2+2 seating, a Board Bistro and even at seat audio entertainment. For all its qualities however the ride is a retrograde step from the conventional ICE we have just left.

There is a good level of English on the ICE trains with most staff having some language skills and most signage appearing in several languages. This does now however evade me from the (modern) age old problem: how do you lock the automatic door in the disabled toilet? There is a sign in English which tells me I should lock it, but no translation on a lock button of any instructions on how to achieve this objective. I eventually decide not to risk it and elect to walk through the train to find a toilet with a handle.

The impressive Köln (Cologne) Hbf with a DB class 101
 'Traxx' loco beneath it's roof. On the nearby track is
an ICE 3, similar to that which we will leave the country on.
At Aachen we make our final stop in Germany and the train demonstrates its multi-voltage capabilities by switching to the Belgian supply. Shortly after we are speeding through an extremely murky landscape as we finally take a dedicated high speed line- for the first time since China. We arrive into a very wet Brussels Midi on time and quickly conclude that it is not worth leaving the station to find food in light of both the weather and that we only have 45 minutes until the advised Eurostar check in time.

The Eurostar check in procedure is very simple and painless, even though we cannot use the electronic check in gates as our ticket was issued by DB (and a bargain at that being a super discounted ‘euro special’ for just €49). While I feel the Eurostar is beginning to look a little tired, something that will be addressed soon by a fleet refurbishment, it is most certainly the quickest and most comfortable way to cross the channel.

The weather has very much turned for the worst by the
time we board our Eurostar in Brussels. 
France is not seen at its best in the gloom but before long, and with a brief wait for a ‘Shuttle’ to go in front of us we dive into the channel tunnel and leave continental Europe behind us. 20 minutes later we emerge in England where the weather is, unsurprisingly, no better! As familiar landmarks such as the QEII bridge over the Thames appear to whiz past us on our high speed line there is time to contemplate just how far this journey has taken us and that we are, save for the tube and a local train, almost at the end of our journey.

Since its construction W H Barlow’s magnificent trainshed at St Pancras has welcomed many a weary passenger after their journey by rail. One wonders if he could ever have imagined that his station, refurbished fit for the 21st century could be the ending of a journey quite as remarkable as this.
Two continents, nine countries, eight nights on trains, somewhere around ten thousand miles and many many memorable experiences later  we have arrived back in London by Eurostar. The end of quite a phenomenal trip.

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