Railway links to Europe: monument to a lost cause?

Eurostar Train in Station.
“Eurostar trainset” by cunaldo

Robert Sissons argues that in not building a network of local links around the Eurostar services, the UK has missed an opportunity to integrate better with mainland Europe.

In 1978-9 I spent the third year of my University course teaching English as an assistant in a French lycée. I did not get a glamorous posting – like Paris, the Loire Valley or the Côte d’Azur. Rather, I was destined to stay for the best part of nine months in the grimy former coal-mining district of the Pas-de-Calais. Fortunately, the locals were very welcoming, and I was near enough to my home in Kent to be able to pop home for a weekend, if I so wished.

Except… at that time, I had neither a car nor a driving licence. Leaving my local station of Calonne-Ricouart, it was a long, meandering journey through pastoral countryside via St Pol-sur-Ternoise to reach the main line at Etaples, then another train to Boulogne or Calais and then a ferry to Folkestone or Dover.

Channel Tunnel cancelled!

Waiting on the platform at Calonne, I regretted that the British Government had cancelled the Channel Tunnel project a few years previously. How wonderful it would be to board a train at Calonne and get off at Folkestone West or Sandling!

Ultimately, the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994, but 26 years later, the journey time by public transport between Calonne-Ricouart and Folkestone West is no faster than it was in 1978. In fact, it is probably a bit slower, as trains no longer run to Calais-Maritime or Dover Western Docks, and even the complimentary buses for foot passengers that formerly linked the ferry to Dover Priory Station have been withdrawn.

Pan-European opportunities

In 1991, I remember standing in front of a huge, interactive map of Europe in the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre in Folkestone, overlooking the Channel Tunnel workings. The map showed various cities in Britain and Europe and showed how the journey times between them by road and rail would shrink after the tunnel opened.

Looking at the map, I imagined travelling by train from Durham to Düsseldorf, from Manchester to Milan, from Huddersfield to Hamburg or from Bristol to Bordeaux. The opportunities for European exploration seemed endless, especially with the recent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the opening up of former Iron Curtain countries to international travellers.

In addition to bringing us the Channel Tunnel, the 1990s also brought home computers into many households. I was never that excited by the sort of computer game where you fought aliens or crashed cars, but what really caught my imagination was the Microsoft Train Simulator. One of the add-ons included a Channel Tunnel and a simulation of the rail networks of Northern France and South-East England, with a number of tasks one could perform.

One of these was called ‘Shopping Trip to Ashford’ – it involved picking up passengers at various French stations and taking them through the tunnel to go shopping in Kent. With a little bit of shunting, my dream of a direct service from Calonne-Ricouart to Folkestone was now possible – but only on a computer screen!

Unfulfilled potential

Sadly, the Channel Tunnel has never lived up to its potential, either for passengers or for freight. The current hoo-ha about turning Kent into a huge lorry park would be irrelevant if most of that freight went by train, and lorries were just used for local distribution to and from railheads.

As for passengers, Eurostar decided long ago that they were only really interested in the London – Paris – Brussels market, though more recently an Amsterdam service has been added. Theoretically, I could have got a train from Folkestone to Ashford International, then a Eurostar to Lille, and then an SNCF local train to Calonne, but the price would have been astronomical, as Eurostar journeys from Ashford to Calais-Fréthun and Lille cost the same as those from London to Paris.

In yet another scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money, magnificent new sleeper trains, ordered in the days of British Rail and built to run through the Channel Tunnel to link various European cities, were never put into service.

After rusting on sidings for a few years, they were sold off at a rock-bottom price to Canada, where at least the bilingual French and English notices on the lavatory doors must come in useful! Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron is planning to incentivise long distance rail travel – and sleeper trains are now multiplying again in Europe,

London to Vienna by Eurostar & sleeper train, as envisaged in 2014

Similarly, a number of Eurostar trains intended for services north of London were never used for their intended purpose: most of them operated internal services in France before making a premature journey to the scrapyard.

Would Brexit have happened if passenger trains had linked Britain with Europe as intended in the 1990s? I doubt it. Railway stations are part of the community, in a way that airports are not. Commuters in Sheffield could have mingled on the platform with executives from Essen or holidaymakers returning from Italy.

Northern folks on hen-party and stag weekends might have boarded a train in Newcastle and travelled overnight to various destinations in near-Europe. Europeans might have done the same in the opposite direction.

Even those not travelling, but popping into the station to deliver and collect passengers, would have heard the announcements and seen the faraway places with strange-sounding names on the destination screens – and realised that they were part of a real European Community. Something tangible that meant more than the silly rules about bananas reported in the tabloid press.

Local cross-Channel links?

Imagine, too, if local stations in Kent had been linked by regular services to those just across the Channel: people might have lived in Canterbury and commuted to Cambrai. I could have visited my friends in Calonne whenever I wanted, even just for a couple of hours after dinner.

Why should going from Folkestone to Calonne be any different than going, say, from Tournai to Lille or from Nice to Ventimiglia, international journeys where the only clue that you are crossing a border is a change in the architectural style of the wayside stations?

My hopes and dreams of a Kent and wider Britain linked to Europe by rail have long since faded. Today, those bright steel lines running from Cheriton to Sangatte are a monument to a lost cause. The stops at Ashford and Ebbsfleet have been eliminated, supposedly for fears of COVID-19; will they ever be reinstated?