The Channel Tunnel united Britain and mainland Europe in a way that politicians will never been able to undo (well, it’d be unlikely).
It changed our culture, how we see ourselves, and our economy. It also got people moving. It combined going abroad with train travel. The tumult and the trivial.
Suddenly weekends away in Paris weren’t a big deal anymore, you just caught the 18.09 from Waterloo and sauntered off to your hotel at the other end.
Eurostar, the international train operator, enjoys an enviable reputation among train operators. It has market share of 80% between London and Paris, considerably more than the total share for rail between Edinburgh and London.
This, in no small part, is down to journey times. The 306 mile journey between the French and English capitals takes under two-and-a-half hours. It’s faster than flying. It’s also down to a lack of complacency. Eurostar have just introduced a fleet of new trains, and are currently working to bring their older fleet up to the same standards.
Usually my trips abroad involve a cheap plane ticket and an overloaded item of hand luggage. Not today.
Today I have a shoulder bag and a suitcase, which is also a trifle inconvenient, if only because of the crowded concourse of Gare du Nord. The station is one of the busiest in Europe, and serves five nations from its platforms.
To travel on Eurostar you must first check in, then pass through French and British passport control and a security checkpoint. I was in the lounge in five minutes. Already faster than flying.
The lounge is less impressive, however. It’s a long, narrow waiting room with a number of duty free and catering kiosks taking up valuable space. Those who travel in Business Premiere, closer to airline first class in terms of service, get their own separate lounge.
We’ve opted to trave in Standard Premiere today. It is, to all intents and purposes, first class. However, the name means it’s easier to claim on expenses, and encourage people to upgrade. So, i is without a hint of sadness when I descend to the platform to board the brand new e320 train.
I’m sat at a pair of exceptionally roomy seats, with a footrest and both British and European plug sockets. Despite the white walls and bright lighting, it feels homely. Even the tannoy’s musical preamble sounds like an elaborate doorbell.
The ride out of northern Paris is smooth and stately, though I have no time to enjoy it. A team of stewards have appeared from nowhere and are offering me a drink from an impressively wide selection. I’ve barely quaffed half of my 1664 when they’re back to ask what I want to eat, two choices only this time. Both cold, and already on trays inside their trolley. I go for salmon and noodles.
The salmon is okay, but the noodles are dry and bland. I’m somewhat distracted now. We’re travelling across northern France at 186mph, storming past cars on the inside lane of motorways. The suspension is fairly firm, giving a slightly rattly ride.
More drinks are offered, they have to. As good as the accommodation is, I’m paying nearly double for this. That’s a lot for less than two-and-a-half hours. Mind you, you’d only get one drink on a flight. If that.
Going for a walk through the train, I realise just how roomy it is. Even in standard class, where the seating arrangement is two by two, rather than the Premiere two by one. It’s evidently a very pleasant environment to travel in, with ample legroom, sockets and tables. On top of that, LCD screens hanging from the roof inform me that everyone gets free WiFi. I connect, and it works well. I also discover, in case you’re curious, that the toilets are the largest I’ve ever encountered on a train by some margin.
Back in my comfy seat, we’re now braking considerably. The views have changed from the lush green fields of the Nord-pas-de-Calais to high barbed wire fences. The fences serve a dual purpose, protecting the Eurotunnel infrastructure, which we are fast approaching, from both sabotage and illegal immigration. Tragically, many people have died trying to stow away onboard trains to the UK from here. The ‘jungle’ camp is nearby, and is being demolished by the French authorities as we sit in luxury.
I have a small dessert with a pang of guilt.
Braking harder now, we’re heading down towards the tunnel. With no fanfare, in we pop. For the next 36 miles the view from the window will be nothing but darkness. The fact that we are traveling below the seabed is not acknowledged by anyone on board. It has become as mundane and ordinary as rail travel itself.
In a somewhat genius move, Eurotunnel had mobile telephone masts installed inside the tunnel a number of years ago. You can tweet about being able to tweet from below the the seabed, if you really want to. Or you could phone: British networks are supported in the tunnel heading to the continent, French networks when coming from it.
There’s an offer of more drinks. I feel like it’s in an attempt to make you forget about the mediocre food.
Emerging from under La Manche, it’s only only 20 minutes until our first stop at Ebbsfleet International. It’s a dull station, with more in common with Doncaster Airport than Doncaster station. From there, it’s a short hop to St Pancras.
There’s no doubting the breathtaking elegance of, what is surely, one of the great termini of the world. The duck egg blue ceiling, the grand clock, the buzz of the people. It’s huge, too. Eurostar trains are a quarter of a mile long, and they fit snugly under the roof.
Although we’ve cleared passport control, we still have to exit the secure area in order to pass through into the main station. The exit is at the bottom of the platform. The only exit. This means a long walk for anyone at the back of the train. Premiere.
And that’s it. I’m back in St Pancras. Back in Britain. There’s people milling around me heading all over: Luton, Chatham, Sheffield, Brighton, Belfast, Brussels.
Would I use Eurostar again? Absolutely. Would I travel standard? Probably.