Christian Wolmar, transport journalist and rail enthusiast, on the advantages of Eurostar's new terminus
The fortuitous decision to locate the London terminal of the Eurostar services at St Pancras was taken relatively late in the day. The original plan for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was for an entirely underground terminal at King’s Cross with the line running in a tunnel from south London. However, a proposal by Arup for a route through east London, with a station at Stratford, was accepted by Michael Heseltine, the then environment secretary, in 1991.
It was a good move, creating a scheme that offered far more regeneration benefits than its predecessor, but the change meant that the terminus and the line would be completed long after the 1994 opening of the Channel Tunnel. Indeed, with subsequent financial problems – requiring two sets of refinancing – and more prevarication, it is now 13 years since President Mitterrand made his famous remark at the opening of the tunnel about how Eurostar passengers would enjoy a long slow look at the Garden of England, but then whizz through northern France on the completed high-speed line.
The location of the new terminus has several advantages. With its proximity to Euston and King’s Cross, as well as the domestic services into St Pancras, it provides ready access to many people coming in from the north. The station, too, is the best connected in London as it is served by six tube lines, as well as Thameslink trains and, from 2009, the terminal will also be used by the high-speed trains from Kent. However, although these will greatly speed up journeys for many Kent commuters, they are controversial, since they will not only attract premium fares, but also mean a reduction in existing services to stations such as Charing Cross and Cannon Street that are more convenient for people working in the City.
There are disappointments, too. First, for some time to come Eurostar will only serve its existing destinations. It won’t be until early next year that other destinations will be considered. There are plenty of towns in northern Europe such as Cologne or Amsterdam that could be reached within four hours of London, but Eurostar has decided to play it safe for the moment, which leaves plenty of spare capacity on the new line.
Second, a plan to run direct trains from British provincial cities, both during the day and at night, was scrapped when British Rail, which had promoted the idea, was privatised.
Moreover, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will not be followed by a successor for decades, if ever, as even the assessment has been postponed by the Department for Transport until 2014 at the earliest. In Europe, by contrast, there is a genuine high-speed revolution, with major networks being developed in Italy, Spain and Germany, as well as in France, which recently opened its fourth major line, TGV Est. Britain, the birthplace of the railway, now finds itself lagging behind the rest of Europe.
Still, it would be churlish not to celebrate the achievement of those who pushed through the construction of the railway and the refurbishment of the wonderful St Pancras in the face of considerable odds. Just like their Victorian forebears who created Britain’s railway network, they showed vision and foresight, and their legacy will survive well into the next century.
Christian Wolmar is a transport journalist and commentator. His history of the railways, Fire and Steam, has just been published by Atlantic Books, £19 99.