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Race to the sun. Full article from the Daily Telegraph.

Is flying quicker, is rail less hassle? We send two reporters on a race to the South of France to find out.

You may have seen Jeremy Clarkson’s stunt on Top Gear, in which he raced a Eurostar train to the south of France in an Aston Martin DB9. It was a lighthearted exercise – but for many British travellers heading off on holiday, choosing between planes, trains and automobiles is a serious dilemma.

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Two years ago, Eurostar began a direct weekly summer service from Waterloo to Avignon in Provence. Even then, it was an idea that appealed: France’s high-speed trains and efficient nationalised railways put Britain’s chaotic transport system to shame. Recently, the journey time to France has shortened as the high-speed link has been extended into the UK, allowing trains to run at speeds of up to 190mph.

But can the train really rival the plane? Do the beleaguered airlines, already forced to reduce their services to Paris and Brussels as passengers opt for the train, now face a serious rival on routes to the south of France?

Here, we compare Eurostar’s high-speed rail route from London Waterloo to Avignon with Ryanair’s flights from London Stansted to Nîmes (less than 30 miles separate the two destinations). We consider not just the length of the trip but the cost, comfort and convenience of travelling from door to door.

Our reporters travelled on Saturday, July 10.

By plane

Rosemary Behan took the Ryanair flight from Stansted at 7.05am.

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3am My alarm goes off and I force myself out of bed and into the shower. It feels like the middle of the night, as indeed it is. At this hour all I can manage is a cup of tea.

3.55am I wait nervously for my minicab to arrive. Stansted Airport is 32 miles from my house in Plaistow, east London, and I am hoping my local minicab office has not underestimated the time it takes to get there. I am aiming to check in at 5am, two hours before the departure of my 7am flight to Nîmes, just as Ryanair recommends. A taxi is my only option because the first train from London Liverpool Street to Stansted does not depart until 5.20am and there are no coaches operating at this hour.

4.10am No taxi. I phone the minicab office, which has no record of my booking but promises to send a car immediately.

4.15am It is still dark outside when the minicab finally turns up at my house. The driver is friendly enough, given the time of day, but his vehicle reeks of body odour. He seems startled to learn I have only 45 minutes to reach the airport, so after filling up with petrol in Barking he puts his foot down.

4.30am Dawn is breaking over the Essex countryside, and mist hangs spookily in the fields.

4.50am We reach Stansted Airport, where all the world seems to be awake. The minicab driver relieves me of £30 – more than the cost of my flight – and I join the hordes of school coach parties, sports teams and plain old individuals like myself.

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Rosemary at Nîmes airport

5.05am Ryanair staff arrive at check-in desks 133-135, now open for my 07.00 flight to Nîmes.

5.08am Check-in begins. This is “ticketless” travel, but the four people ahead of me still have to scramble around for pieces of paper on which they have their confirmation numbers.

5.15am My luggage and I are checked in swiftly for flight FR824 and I am told to be at the gate by 6.20am. On the back of my boarding pass there is a warning that those who are not at the gate 40 minutes before departure may be denied boarding. While wandering round the airport, I see that the cafes, clothes shops and slot machines are doing a roaring trade; I marvel at how anyone can stomach a full English breakfast at this hour. As I queue for the toilets, I check that the flight is displayed on the electronic monitors. Despite the stress of the airport environment, the seemingly endless possibilities of all those destinations makes it hard to feel anything but exhilarated – on an outward journey, at least. I attempt a cappuccino and a slice of pizza, but they make me feel nauseous.

5.55am I decide to go through security, but am dismayed to find that the queue snakes back beyond the designated queueing area into the main part of the terminal. I panic slightly at the painfully slow progress and begin to worry that I might miss my flight.

6.15am I emerge from security with only five minutes to get to the gate. It is a very long walk to gate 58, so, with the dreaded 40-minute warning in mind, I sprint it in four or five minutes, dodging luggage, wandering children, groups of aimless adults and the elderly. When I get there, only a few passengers are waiting.

6.35am Boarding begins – and because there is no seat allocation on Ryanair flights, it is a bit of a scramble. It is a beautiful clear morning for flying, but I am disappointed to find that, for some reason, cabin staff won’t let anyone sit in the first two rows of the cabin, ruling out a seat with extra legroom. Still, I find an empty row of three seats further back, and sit by the window. I am joined by an amiable Frenchman.

7.05am The flight takes off and I am soon looking down on London and then Brighton. We cruise at 37,000ft, and at 550mph. Apart from having to clamber across a now sleeping Frenchman to reach the loo, the flight is otherwise comfortable. Most people are asleep, which results in a civilised silence. We continue past Dijon and Lyon before descending dramatically over verdant mountains into Nîmes.

9.40am The flight lands 10 minutes ahead of schedule. “That was pretty painless, wasn’t it?” one man remarks to his two young sons. They nod, excitedly. And it has been. I feel surprisingly sprightly.

9.50am Aeroport Nîmes-Arles is small and clean. Our luggage arrives on the carousel barely five minutes after landing. There is something about an airport in the early morning that makes it more palatable than at any other time of day.

10am I walk out of the airport into bright sunshine and find a well-timed shuttle bus waiting to take passengers to Nîmes town centre, seven miles away. The journey costs 4.3 euros (£3) and the bus leaves without delay.

10.20am I arrive at Nîmes station, which is just five minutes’ walk from the town’s spectacular Roman amphitheatre. The early start has been worth it: the whole day lies ahead of me.

Verdict
I am not a fan of early-morning starts, and usually try at all costs to arrange short-haul flights that depart after midday. If you lose sleep when travelling, you’ll only have to catch up on it later.

But, like many things, a bargain is a great motivator. At £28.99 each way, including taxes, I couldn’t complain at the price of my Ryanair flight to Nîmes. Who could? A taxi to the airport cost more. And, had I booked further ahead, the price could have come down to as little as a penny (excluding taxes), and I could also have found a more sociable departure time. This flexible pricing structure creates a potential bonanza for the bargain-conscious.

In addition to all this, Ryanair flies twice a day to Nîmes, whereas the Eurostar service to Avignon only runs once a week. Further, with the availability of one-way flights, one can always fly into one airport in France and back from another, using the train in-between.

The journey to and through Stansted airport was probably more arduous than taking the train, because there were so many more stress-points: waiting for the taxi, checking in, going through security, reaching the gate, boarding the plane, finding a seat. Even the Stansted Express train service from Liverpool Street to Stansted adds on a lot of time and cost.

But even getting to Waterloo can be stressful. I have lost count of the times the Waterloo € City Tube Line, which runs between Bank and Waterloo, has been out of action, and it is closed on Sunday.

Generally I prefer trains to planes, and believe more short-haul routes should be made by rail, on an environmental basis if nothing else. However, until rail can compete properly with low-cost flights, both in terms of price and speed, I will continue to use the budget airlines.

Journey time: 5hrs 15mins.

Total cost: £62.99 (Ryanair fare, £28.99 one-way; taxi from home to Stansted airport, £30; bus from Nîmes airport to city centre, £3).

Comfort: 5/10.

Convenience: 5/10.

 

By train

Charles Starmer-Smith took the Eurostar train from Waterloo at 7.09am.

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Charles at Avignon train station

5.45am My alarm goes off and I wake with the stomach-churning feeling that I must be late. I cannot get my head around the fact that, in just over an hour, I will be leaving for France – and yet I am still in bed in my ground-floor flat in Clapham, south London.

 

 

 

 

 

6.15am After a shower, I manage to eat some breakfast (a refreshing change from the nausea I normally feel when travelling to the airport at 4am to catch a cheap, early-morning flight). I walk the short distance to Clapham Junction BR station as the sun rises over Clapham Common, before boarding an empty train at 6.20am. For once, I am not standing with my nose in someone’s armpit and the train actually arrives on time.

6.27am The seven-minute journey to Waterloo is uneventful. I grab a quick coffee on the way to the Eurostar check-in, just a 400-yard walk from the platform where I arrived. There is no need to stock up frantically on drinks and sandwiches, because I know the Eurostar buffet car will be more than amply stocked.

6.31am I arrive at the Eurostar desk 38 minutes before it closes (the recommended check-in time is 40 minutes, although business travellers are allowed to arrive 10 minutes before departure). There are no queues and the check-in procedure involves simply pushing my ticket into an electonic barrier, which opens up in a split-second. I barely break stride as I stroll through the passport and security checks.

6.45am After picking up the morning papers, I wander on to the platform. The stationary train snakes out of the station for a quarter of a mile. There is a sprinkling of families and couples, some excited about the journey ahead, others kissing loved ones goodbye.

6.50am I settle into my seat, taking comfort from the fact that there is no colossus sitting next to me. With no constricting seatbelts, I am free to wander around the train as I please.

7.09am We are on our way. But where are the G-force pull and the roar of engines I expected of this 190mph train?

The only indication of speed is the fact that cars on the motorway appear stationary as we hurtle towards the Kent coast. Boy racers try in vain to keep up, but their furry dice and spoilers disappear quickly into the the distance. Despite the train’s speed, it is a surprisingly smooth ride.

8.02am We arrive in Ashford, where some of Kent’s finest board the train. A couple sit down next to me and immediately open some Champagne. I choose to sleep, confident I will not be woken by an out-of-control, in-flight meals trolley crashing into my elbows.

9.32am (French time, one hour ahead of British Summer Time)

I wake to the announcement that we are in France. Outside, the sun is beating down on the fields and farmhouses of Pas de Calais. The route the Eurostar takes winds through Lille and past Paris, then down through the Seine valley and Burgundy. It then passes close to Lyon, with the peaks of the Alps in the distance, following the course of the river Rhône into Provence. The driver gives us intermittent and informative updates on the areas we are passing through. I spare a thought for the Tour de France riders who last week completed a similar distance by pedal power.

Midday A crew change at Marne la Vallée. I take the opportunity to stroll down to the buffet car, knowing I won’t be caught short by any turbulence. There I enjoy a cooked breakfast and fresh coffee.

1.00pm I am politely interrupted by a man from Avis who offers to organise a hire car for me, so that all the paperwork can be done on board and be ready for my arrival.

2.19pm After 715 miles and just over six hours, we pull into Avignon station two minutes ahead of schedule. I step down from the train and follow the exit signs with my suitcase in tow. There is no passport control, or lengthy wait at the luggage carousel, your bags aren’t searched as you head through the “nothing to declare” exit, and you don’t have to endure tiresome connections to the city from an airport in the middle of nowhere.

2.21pm I leave the station in search of a taxi to the town centre, stopping to ask a bystander how far it is. “Mais monsieur, vous êtes deja là,” he replies with typical Gallic disdain. I look up and stare in disbelief at the medieval walls of Avignon’s historic city centre standing before me. Travel is just not meant to be this easy.

Verdict
At £64.50 each way, the Eurostar service is not expensive – and although it only runs on Saturdays, necessitating a one-week stay, those wishing to spend a long weekend in Avignon can return on a regular TGV service and change at Paris or Lille for the Eurostar at no extra cost. Launched two years ago, this summer service has grown in popularity as journey times have shortened. It may still take longer than a plane, but you endure far less pain. For those who live outside London, the Eurostar option may be slightly more expensive – but you avoid the extra cost of early-morning taxis or car-parking fees. Those living in central London can enjoy a couple of hours’ more sleep than they would if catching an early-morning flight, and Waterloo is easily accessible by tube or train. Passengers who live south of London can board at Ashford, Kent. Further London terminals are being built (at St Pancras, Stratford and Ebsfleet), opening in 2007. As the high-speed link is extended, also by 2007, the return journey time will be shortened by 50 minutes. Unless I can’t avoid the plane, it is the train for me.

Journey time: 7hrs 6mins.

Total cost: £65.80 (Eurostar fare, £64.50; train from Clapham Junction to Waterloo, £1.30).

Comfort: 8/10.

Convenience: 9/10.

Comments»

1. javier - December 17, 2007

Very interesting experience, in my opinion in this journey the train is better than the plane, if you choose the plane journey you will have to wake up very early, you should wait a lot in the airport and you have to make queues for everything, for me this is the worst reason not to choose the plane option.Regarding the train option, I agree with the journalist, it´s the best opcion, you can relax and enjoy with a smooth journey, definitely it´s more comfortable and more convenient than the plane because the plane is only two hours faster than the train.
In conclusion the plane has got the good reputation if we talk about pleasent journeys but as you have checked in the above lines now the train is a serious rival for the plane in middle distance journeys, but it depends on the train, of course.


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