Railway historians will have to rewrite the record books after a train from Brussels to St Pancras International achieved the fastest rail journey ever between a European capital and London yesterday, knocking more than 30 minutes off the previous timing.
The 20-coach train – the first from Brussels to run on the full stretch of new £5.3bn high-speed line through Kent and east London – covered the 232 miles between the two cities in just 1 hour, 43 minutes, 53 seconds. When the new line opens to the public in November, a trip from London to the Belgian capital will take 1 hour, 51 minutes – faster than to Manchester and a similar travelling time to Nottingham, which is 100 miles closer.
Earlier this month, a Eurostar train slashed the journey time from Paris to London, setting a record time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 39 seconds between the two capitals, so ancient rivalries were at stake as the train packed with dignitaries and other guests pulled out of Brussels Midi at 11.05am yesterday. Although the French performance had been impressive, it had just failed to break the two-hour barrier. Could little Belgium do better?
There had been signal problems inside the tunnel earlier in the morning, and a nervous Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar, told guests he was keeping his fingers crossed. But SNCB driver Luc Stocx had a twinkle in his eye as he waved back at guests on the platform. He leant on the throttle at 186mph all the way through Flanders, only having to slow on the approach to the port of Calais, where there was a speed restriction because of subsidence caused by First World War trenches.
Midway through the tunnel he handed over to Waterloo driver David Green, who kept up the pace. Timing buffs were busy consulting their handheld GPS devices, as the train whizzed through Kent and under the Thames. East London's Stratford, which will have a major new station serving the 2012 Olympics, passed by in a flash.
As the train pulled in just before 11.50am ( UK time), the gloriously restored St Pancras was wearing her best clothes. The sun shone through the 18,000 newly-installed panes of glass in William Barlow's great iron roof, now repainted in glorious sky blue. A band played on the platform.
Even some Belgian guests could not help making unfavourable comparisons with their own gloomy terminal tucked in a corner at Midi station. Yesterday, orange-clad workmen were busy doing the final snagging on the £800m restoration of George Gilbert Scott's mid-Victorian gothic masterpiece, which is now revealed in all its magnificence.
But this was also Belgium's day and the bulky figure of Marc Descheemaecker, head of Belgian railways, was striding along the platform telling everyone who would hear. Even Eurostar's normally laid-back Richard Brown was euphoric: "It was a fantastic run – highly exciting, and everybody on board could just sense it," he said with a sense of pride.
Eurostar will launch services from St Pancras International on 14 November, having run the final trains from Waterloo the previous evening. Trains on the new line, to be known as High Speed 1, will reach Paris in two hours and 15 minutes and Lille in one hour and 20 minutes. For the first time, UK business travellers will be able to reach the centre of Brussels before 9am, and Belgian travellers to reach central London by 8am.
Eurostar is investing very heavily in marketing its green credentials, claiming that its trains emit 10 times less carbon emissions than flying to comparable destinations. Mr Brown said that using regional airports "was not such a pleasant experience."
He added: "Eurostar is quite simply the fastest and most convenient way to travel – avoiding wasted time and money getting to airports, lengthy check-in times and baggage reclaim delays."
The new line – the first main line to be built in the UK for more than 100 years – runs for 68 miles to the Channel Tunnel, near Folkestone, through new stations at Stratford International and Ebbsfleet International in north Kent. Eurostar trains travel 50 per cent quicker than even the fastest domestic services in Britain, including the new tilting Pendolino trains to North-west England and Scotland, which can only run at a maximum of 125mph.
From November, travellers will be able to buy through fares to Paris and Brussels for the first time from about 70 UK stations.
Birmingham to Brussels: 4 hours 25 minutes
Manchester to Brussels: 5 hours 10 minutes
York to Brussels: 4 hours 50 minutes
Newcastle to Brussels:5 hours 50 minutes
Cambridge to Brussels: 3 hours 40 minutes
A bluffer's guide to the delights of the Belgian capital
When the new line from St Pancras International to Brussels Midi opens to the public on 14 November, two things should happen: a reduction in the number of daily flights from London to Brussels, currently an absurd 25, and an explosion in the number of British train travellers seeking to learn more about one of Europe's classiest cities.
The Belgian capital is hampered by its civic icon: a statue of a boy urinating. The Mannekin Pis apart, however, Brussels comprises the perfect weekend away, which is why it has featured so frequently in the 48 Hours city-break series in The Independent. It is accessible, manageable, safe – and immensely rewarding. Whatever the weekender seeks in a city, the Belgian capital can deliver: boutique hotels and backpacker hostels, Old Masters and Art Nouveau, haute couture and flea markets, antiques and shabby chic. Most travellers seem to put on a pound for every hour they spend in this gastronomic city, due to the appetising spreads from neighbourhood bistros to Michelin magnificence – and fine beer. The delicious Grand Place scores twice: a civic square of grace and coherence, and the ideal location for an aperitif. And to top it all, the marvellously retro Atomium, a monument looking back to the days when Brussels was a full day's journey via Dover and Ostend.
Never mind breakfast in London, lunch in New York: in 55 days, travellers can enjoy elevenses in London followed by déjeuner in Brussels.
Simon Calder, Travel Editor