A railway runs under it
The English Channel: sailed across by the wise and stately; flown over by the rash and foolish.
For many years I held that belief. I spouted it widely, to ever-narrowing minds. Then, like all the other demented dictums and moist-eyed theories you concoct as a teenager, I dumped it.
I still think it’s silly to fly over the Channel. What changed was the arrival, in 1994, of a third option.
What sort of person, I now wondered, chose to travel under the sea by train? More to the point, who had the means to do such a dazzling thing?
Stung by its associations with the Thatcher years, jaded by all the h-h-hilarious gags about dogs running through it delivering rabies unto the Home Counties, then bemused by the various cock-ups of the 90s, to begin with I was a bit snotty about the Chunnel. Even the name sounded ludicrous. I bet the sherry flowed free in the Department of Transport the day they signed off that particular ghastly portmanteau.
My feelings moderated once Britain finally got round to building a proper railway line on which Eurostar trains could run. They moderated further when HS1 was accompanied by the glittering refurbishment of St Pancras station. Finally, people I knew started using it. My mum and dad, for instance. At last, it seemed like it had become something that was both aimed at and run for the use of everyone, and not merely the likes of city whiz-kids in stripey shirts or Norman Fowler.
Even so, it took 20 years before I finally went on it myself – which I did, just the other day.
My friend Robert, with whom I’d spent a few days last year travelling around Scotland, had suggested a trip to Amsterdam.
He won me over with the fact that not only would this involve a journey on a Eurostar through the Channel tunnel, but also a connecting train from Brussels on a similar high-speed line.
From St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal would take around five hours. When I visited the city last, by coincidence also 20 years ago, it had taken me 19.
That particular trip had marked the start of two weeks spent interrailing around western Europe: an experience about which I’ve already written on this blog, and which also saw me enduring cold showers in a communal bathroom and throwing up in a Paris gutter at 8am.
Older, wiser and waspier, I would not do willingly any of those kinds of things again, especially the 19-hour journey from Loughborough to Amsterdam via Peterborough, Ipswich, Manningtree, Harwich, an overnight ferry and the Hook of Holland.
Fortunately both the world and I have moved on since 1994. If only the foolish choose to fly over the Channel and the wise sail across it, perhaps it’s the reformed who now travel underneath.
I’d prepared myself to be wowed by the advances in engineering and technology that would carry me swiftly and smoothly across four countries in almost as many hours.
But perhaps I ratcheted up my expectations a little too high. For the Eurostar trains we took both to and from the continent were unambiguously tatty.
The outsides were discoloured and worn; the insides shabby and unloved.
If you’d have plonked me in one of them with no prior knowledge of its age or purpose, I would have dated it as hailing from the dawn of the 1990s. Want a vision of the 21st century as imagined at the time of the poll tax and Clive Anderson Talks Back? Get on a Eurostar.
My second surprise was the absence of train staff.
During the outward journey I didn’t see a single member of the crew; on the return I think I spotted one.
A tri-lingual announcement told us the buffet car was well-stocked both with personnel and food “from Waitrose”. But I didn’t join the flow of passengers to see for myself. I made do with nosing at the contents of the paper plates they brought back, where melted cheese slopped ever so slowly over the side like viscous bile being swept off a poop-deck.
I’d been hoping for a lot of announcements full of facts about our voyage: our depth under the Channel, our maximum speed, when we were approaching a national border, that sort of thing.
But here I was also to be disappointed. No such bulletins were forthcoming. The only way I knew we’d crossed a border was when my mobile phone told me so, the network defaulting first to SRF then the fancy-sounding BEL PROXIMUS. And while I could obviously tell when we were travelling very very fast, it would’ve been nice to have had it specified. Who wouldn’t want to boast of moving at 186mph?
I have a message to Eurostar personnel. There’s absolutely no harm in reminding your passengers of the feats of the Channel tunnel rail link. It hasn’t stopped being a technological marvel just because it’s 20 years old. If anything, we need to be reminded all the more.
The reticence of the staff and the obliviousness palpable among the more seasoned travellers suggested to me a sense of taking this whole kinetic kaboodle for granted. Once that gains critical mass, no one will bother granting it neither a further thought nor a penny more of investment.
And it so obviously needs it. Along with the carriages, the stations along the UK stretch of the line could do with a real brush-up. Ebbsfleet in particular. As a gateway to a mechanical wonder, I’ve rarely seen such an unprepossessing place. If its mission is to make you want to flee Britain out of aesthetic despair, it succeeds.
The French seem to love their chunk of tunnel more than us. Here, mobile network coverage has been in existence for ages. Typically, the British are only just getting round to wiring up their bit. You can enjoy a signal while travelling from Calais to Folkestone, but you’re cut off when heading the other way.
I’m sure this reflects a broader attitude to the line and to rail travel in general. Britain, with its slugabed mentality towards public transport, took a whopping 13 years to hook London up with the high-speed network. God only knows how long it will take before we get to benefit from another high-speed railway in this country.
Over La Manche, however, the self-evident advantages of this kind of travel have never been denied. No pernicious marshalling of ignorance and conceitness here.
A mixture of expediency and pride (always a winning combination) ignited the expansion of high-speed rail. Pragmatism has sustained it. People can zip around the continent at a pace and with a purpose the military planners of 1914 would have swooned for.
Except their kind of “war-by-timetable” wouldn’t work today. The network has become too interlocked and mutually dependent. No longer would generals be able to mobilise nations haplessly towards conflict based on the times of trains to the border. For now at least, the Channel tunnel has guaranteed peace in our time.
On the subject of belligerent fools, I wonder how many anti-HS2 campaigners have taken advantage of the convenience afforded by Eurostar trains to go on holiday quicker and stay abroad for longer. Robert and I were able to pick up our connection at Brussels with ease, and reach Amsterdam by early afternoon having left London in the morning.
While the Eurostar reminded me of an InterCity train from my adolescence, the Thalys train to Amsterdam evoked no immediate resonance. Instead it suggested to me a bordello on wheels:
I’d never seen a train like it. The colour scheme mixed gaudy maroon with under-polished silver. A whiff of seedy chintz abounded. In terms of character it outranked a Eurostar, for though this also was tatty it had oodles of personality. I have only vague memories of the train journey I took 20 years ago from the Hook of Holland to Amsterdam, but in none of them does personality appear.
Thalys (it rhymes with chalice) edges it over the Eurostar in another field: it has its own musical sting.
I love trains or rail networks that come with an in-house fanfare. Pick of the pops remains SNCF, a four-note gem so perfect it can hold its own both solo or as part of a remix.
But Thalys is almost as good. Its sting comprises a five-note phrase followed by a flourish of an arpeggioed chord, all played on a tinkling piano. It’s lovely and immensely hummable, but doesn’t appear to be anywhere on YouTube. I tried to record it myself, but never quite caught it in time.
The Eurostar has no musical sting. None at all. This is a disgrace. Some sort of variation on this noble tan-ta-ra would do, if only to deliver misery repeatedly unto Nigel Farage and his fellow Ukip MEPs during their weekly journeys to and from Brussels.
How I’d relish seeing their faces every time this piece of music rang out joyously. (Oh, and I trust you and your colleagues have enjoyed the speed and efficiency of this trans-continental express, Nige.)
I found myself invoking Farage’s name with naked disdain* when I was stopped by customs at St Pancras at the end of our return journey.
This was not the sort of homecoming I needed. I’ve no idea why I was stopped. I looked too sad; I looked too happy; my bag was too big; my bag was too small. Whatever. It happened and I felt guilty for no reason. But hey, anything to make you feel ashamed for enjoying being part of Europe.
I’d give anything to be made to feel more part of Europe. I’d hoped a ride on a Eurostar train would help. My mistake was to approach it as a treat, rather than a service.
I’m mightily glad the Channel tunnel exists, and deeply annoyed I left it this long to use it. But I can’t help wishing it was more proud of itself and that it sought to remind you of the fact. Not through ritzy advertising campaigns or special offers, but pretty persuasion. A nudge, a hint. An announcement here, a musical sting there.
That might sound rather humdrum. But it’s the humdrum of a fantasy made real. And you can never have too many reminders of that.
*To be honest I’m not sure it’s possible to invoke it any other way
Robert’s account of our trip is on his blog.