( AFP ) - Eurostar bade farewell to its long-time south London home at Waterloo station Tuesday as it prepared to whizz into a new era with the launch of a fully high-speed link between London and mainland Europe.
With the last Eurostar high-speed train from Paris arriving at 6:12 pm (1812 GMT), the service now transfers to a freshly-renovated new terminus at St Pancras, north of the River Thames, on Wednesday morning.
Until now, Eurostar trains, first launched in 1994, have sped across northern France at 300 kilometres (186 miles) per hour, only to slow to a relative crawl on ageing track on the British stretch of the Channel tunnel before reaching Waterloo station.
But following the completion of a new stretch of high-speed track, the new trains will whisk passengers between the French and British capitals in two hours and 15 minutes, shaving 20 minutes off the previous time.
Eurostar is preparing celebrations when the first new train arrives Wednesday at St Pancras, which has been transformed from crumbling Victorian terminus into a glitzy new hub to host the new service.
But the launch comes as France braced for several days of transport chaos, as railway workers launch an open-ended strike.
The strike began late Tuesday on the French national rail network and from Wednesday morning the shutdown will hit most underground Metro and suburban commuter train lines into Paris.
Eurostar insists its St Pancras launch will go like clockwork, saying it has switched from Anglo-French crews to all-British staff for the inaugural services.
"We are confident that our services will not be disrupted, although passengers taking other forms of public transport after arriving in Paris must be prepared for delays," said a Eurostar spokesman.
The first train from St Pancras to Paris Wednesday will leave London at 1101 GMT, while the first arrival from Paris will be at 1109 GMT.
The 5.8-billion-pound (8.4-billion-euro, 12-billion-dollar) transformation of St Pancras comes following the completion of a 68-mile (109-kilometre) section of high-speed line, dubbed High Speed 1, on the British side.
Waterloo, named after an 1815 battle in which Britain and Prussia defeated French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, is, by contrast, architecturally uninspiring and crowded, with cramped waiting rooms and two tiny cafes providing scant welcome.
St Pancras, a red-brick Gothic revival masterpiece, which only a few years ago was crumbling into disrepair, has been restored to its former glory with new additions including the world's longest champagne bar and chic boutiques.
"A 21st century station will be replacing a station from the 1980s," said Guillaume Pepy, chairman of Eurostar, whose advertisements highlighting the switch carried the slogan "Forget Waterloo".
In Britain, where the railways are something of a national joke due to frequent overcrowding and delays, the opening of the new St Pancras terminal is being viewed as a dual opportunity.
As well as making the trip easier for existing customers, Eurostar hopes it will open up train travel to continental Europe to people living in central and northern England and Scotland.