When boarding the 3.31pm Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord, destination London St Pancras, I realised it was an e320 by Siemens. What better opportunity to explore the form and function of this much talked about train?
In 2010 Eurostar inked a €600 million contract with Siemens for 10 x 16-car e320s, the fourth generation of the constructor’s Velaro high-speed platform. Two years later, the operator, which serves destinations in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, signed up for a further seven units, costing an additional €400 million.
The first e320 was unveiled in November 2014, and by the time of my trip to the U.K. (December 2015) three units had entered into commercial service between London and Paris.
They will significantly boost Eurostar’s existing fleet of 27 TGV TMSTs (TransMancheSuperTrain), by Alstom, which themselves are being revamped after 20+ years in service.
A lot is riding on these new wheels. They will be used to serve new routes (interoperable with diverse European signalling systems), boost capacity and performance, enhance the quality of passenger service, and help Eurostar retain its appeal in the face of competition, from both rail and low-cost air.
With its 16,000kW of traction power, the 400-metre e320 (the longest Velaro to date) has a top speed of… yes, 320km/hr.
Standard class coaches make up the body of the trainset, with Business Premier and Standard Premier located at its ends to limit the number of passengers walking through them.
The interiors and exterior livery are by Pininfarina, the legendary (Ferrari, Maserati) Italian design house behind a host of other land transport vehicles, of which the Bluecars making up Autolib’ in Paris, as well as a number of trains across Europe.
In the passenger seat
First impressions: in Standard, the high-backed seats by Grammer (reminding me of those on Alstom’s Pendolinos, operated by Virgin Trains in the U.K.), make for a somewhat austere feel. Apparently this thinner design was necessary to gain the extra 20% capacity per train specified by Eurostar – the e320s have 16 coaches and 894 seats; the older trains (by Alstom, in service since 1994) have 18 for 750 passengers.
Eurostar says: ‘the new trains are about 10 metres longer than our current fleet, as well as wider and taller.’
Possibly to compensate this lack of ‘cosy’ (compared to the more inviting seats on board the Thalys, for example), Pininfarina has used alternating colours for the upholstery – brown and beige in Premier and Business Premier, grey and cobalt blue in Standard.
Another observation, the seats in Standard look and feel more tightly packed. Having said that, they proved comfortable enough for the London-Paris trip of under three hours, and are certainly more passenger friendly than on a plane! The swivel coat hooks on the window ledge are a nice touch.
Eurostar says: ‘the new seats [have] a deeper recline allowing you to stretch out and gently slide back without encroaching on the space of the traveller behind you. [They] are ergonomically designed to give lumbar support and the cushion also extends, giving extra comfort to those with longer legs.’
I discovered the power point for both Continental and U.K. plugs located between my seat and that of my neighbour. Business Premier and Standard Premier passengers also have their own USB socket, plus a cup holder, personal light, mirror, coat hook, and pocket to hold a laptop.
Information, infortainment & connectivity
Overhead TFT screens in the middle of the aisles show information on the departure and destination of the train. When fully up and running (not the case on my journey), they will also provide real-time details on the speed of the train and its current location.
Having these screens prominently display the number of the coach overhead (visible from a distance) is a welcome development. This is bound to help passengers navigate more efficiently through the train, and so, I imagine, prevent blocking in aisles due to hesitation or deviation. Indeed I appreciated the overall fluidity of movement on board, also thanks to the automatic glass partitions separating coaches. Note: these are necessary due to strict fire safety requirements for trains using the Channel Tunnel.
Eurostar says: ‘our touch-free glass doors between coaches open automatically – perfect for when you’re carrying luggage or treats from the bar buffet.’
It seems that while the equipment is ready to go, the service, which will include real-time travel and destination information, as well as interactive entertainment, video-on-demand, music, and news feeds, has yet to be activated. A let-down, yes, but less so since the offer, when up and running, will be free across all classes of travel.
Accessibility for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) is now the norm, rather than the exception, for all new trains these days. On this score, the e320 ticks the required boxes with…
…90 designated priority seats, 4 designated wheelchair spaces, plus 4 wheelchair lifts incorporated into each trainset. There are two universal access toilets (UAT, compliant with TSI PRM) per train.
Toilets – making or breaking the travel experience
Never underestimate the importance of train toilet facilities! If dirty, out of order, difficult to use, or ill-equipped, they bring on-board services down.
Each e320 has 22 in total (of which 2 UAT). On inspection they (supplied by Satek) were clean right from the start of the journey – not always the case on other international trains in Europe!
The e320 toilets are clearly designed with function, rather than flights of fancy in mind.
The touch-free taps are a good feature. And I’m sure mothers will appreciate the baby changing tables. Also, in line with its desire to create a consistant design, Pinanfarina has applied a colour scheme in the cubicles reflecting that used throughout the rest of the train.
Have more centimetres at the ends of the coaches been given over to luggage storage, I wondered? It certainly looked and felt that way. Pinafarina has redesigned these areas to stow bags more efficiently. Also, to remind passengers not to forget their luggage, blue LED lights come on when the train stops.
Along the length of the coaches, the overhead racks are generous, thus encouraging passengers to fit in small suitcases, which, I imagine, contributes to a smarter use of the on-board luggage space as a whole. Also, for this Christmas period, helpful staff were on hand to redistribute bags when necessary, ensuring they don’t block the aisles and vestibules.
Eurostar says: ‘with luggage racks throughout each coach, and they will be larger (big enough to fit larger modern pushchairs), boarding’s faster than ever and you’ll never be far from your belongings. When it’s time to head off at the other end, special lighting will spring to life to remind you to take all your bits and bobs with you.’
If you find yourself on an e320 keep your eyes open for one curiosity – a narrow slot compartment, sided by glass partitions, located in the middle of each coach. Underneath, the purpose of the large bin is obvious. But this rectangual space above remains an enigma. I guess it’s up to passengers to use it as they will…
A good catch?
Will travellers be lured by the new trains? Only time will tell if the e320 is delivering the expected goods. But while opinions may differ over the improvements, it was high time the fleet enjoyed an upgrade.
Given the stakes a play – the niggling presence and popularity of low-cost flights, plus the impending arrival of a rail rival in the form of German operator Deutsche Bahn (which obtained the right to run passenger services through the Channel Tunnel from the British and French authorities in 2013, but has yet to launch) – improving the passenger experience and perceived value for money is an absolute must if Eurostar is to stay the pace.