Train Talk: One plus point of the new arrangement is that passengers arrive at the most majestic terminus in Britain, London St Pancras
For many travellers paying £3,785 for an overnight train journey from Venice to London, the final leg is a grand finale.
They arrive at Calais aboard the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express. The antique carriages, up to 100 years old, are not allowed to go through the Channel Tunnel for safety reasons. Instead the passengers are taken by coach onto a shuttle through the tunnel to Folkestone, where they board another luxury train – the Belmond British Pullman – for the journey to London.
The company promises: “A traditional afternoon tea accompanied by a glass of English sparkling wine is served before arriving at your destination.”
The historic train normally makes the journey from the Kent coast along “railway cuttings smothered in wild flowers”, as George Orwell describes the route, to the capital.
But between April and June, travellers who book the luxury trip offered by Belmond will have a very different experience.
The train will arrive at Calais Ville as normal, with passengers decanted to a bus. But instead of travelling on Eurotunnel for the 35-minute trip to Folkestone, they will spend 90 minutes driving directly away from the UK on the A16 and A25 motorways to Lille, close to the Belgian border.
Here the travellers will enter the draughty concrete station housing the Eurostar platforms, go through a security check and wait for a train from Brussels to London.
About 20 minutes after setting off they will get a second glimpse of Calais and its Eurostar station. Normally there are direct trains from the French port’s high-speed station to London, but they have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When the Eurostar train emerges from the English end of the tunnel, the prospects are slim at 186mph of observing Orwell’s “deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms [and] the larkspurs in the cottage gardens”.
The writer’s “huge peaceful wilderness of outer London” is entirely eliminated by the 11-mile tunnel beneath the suburbs. One plus point of the new arrangement is that passengers arrive at the most majestic terminus in Britain, London St Pancras.
Mark Smith, the international rail expert who runs the Seat61.com website, says: “This is apparently due to the increasing unpredictability of the Channel crossing. Brexit delays and congestion in the wake of the P&O Ferries débacle have put Belmond in a difficult position.”
Since 17 March, no P&O vessels have sailed between Dover and Calais, putting pressure on the other ferry operators as well as the Eurotunnel vehicle service.
VSOE is offering passengers the option to rebook for a later date, or continue with their travel plan and receive on-board credit to spend or a British Pullman journey to be taken at a later date.
Passengers are carried in Business Premier class. When travelling from London, they get priority check-in and use of the business lounge.
The company says the arrangement could continue beyond June, depending on conditions on the Channel crossings.
The coach journey could be eliminated if the VSOE ended at Lille, with passengers walking the short distance to the Eurostar station. But a spokesperson said: “We wanted to be able to give the guests as long as possible in the train, Lille is also on a different line to that used by the VSOE.”
Mark Smith recommends: “If you’re not already booked, you could consider only booking the VSOE between Paris and Venice, then booking your own Eurostar between London and Paris, cutting out the transfer bus between Lille and Calais.”
The VSOE uses the Gare de l’Est, a 10-minute walk from the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord.