News of Eurostar’s long, long overdue decision to make decent-priced single fares available – together with the public test run for Southeastern’s new high-speed train to Ashford – reminded me I wanted to reflect on a few thoughts from my travels. In the three months since I quit my job, I’ve spent two months of that sat on my backside – more than I should have done, perhaps, but it’s been a trickier-than-expected transition away from my old life – and almost a month travelling around Europe. By sheer coincidence, two other people I know also quit media jobs after 10 years in the same month I did; one’s now in the Far East with her boyfriend, the other is doing good work in Kenya. I kept my sights closer to home, and if I can get some decent fares my next trips might be even closer to home. (That’s a big “if” there, of course – actually, the “closer to home” bit might be a doubt too, I should get an atlas out…)
I’d recommend the experience to anyone – it can be expensive, but book smartly and you can get some pretty sharp deals. It shouldn’t cost you a great deal more to swap that weekend away in Paris that everyone does for a jaunt to beautiful and civilised Strasbourg (only a couple of hours more on the TGV), while the Mediterranean heat of Montpellier is three hours’ doze away from the French capital on a luxurious TGV. Eurostar to Cologne via Brussels is a route that isn’t advertised enough – a city that manages to be both lively and romantic is an afternoon’s train journey away. No mucking about at airports – it’s city centre to city centre, with a view nearly all the way (like the one above, west of Montpellier). And that’s before I even get onto sleeper trains, although I’ll concede that for those it helps to be in an adventurous mood (and to be an easy sleeper). The Man At Seat 61 got me started on all this, and he can get you started, too.
Of course, from the likes of Montpellier and Cologne, it’s easy to travel onwards – stay at the wonderful Hotel Mistral around the corner, get up early, grab some croissants, and there’s a 7.26am train from Montpellier which takes you along the coastline, through the hill which serves as the France/Spain border, after an unofficial cigarette break to change engines (and a novel experience – two nations’ border guards checking your passport in a no-mans’ land), and then wends its way down to Barcelona for lunchtime, Valencia at siesta time, and heads further down to hotter destinations still. Air travel is quick, but rail travel feeds the imagination and gets you there relaxed. Just like Jimmy Savile used to say.
But we’ve a big problem in Britain – one, we privatised the things and effectively handed over control to shareholders with no interest in anything other than money (except when they want a handout from the government). That’s a big, big problem that won’t go away and will remain with us for as long as we continue to elect the main three parties, who all back the current system. The second is, well, the same as the first – governments just aren’t interested in rail. They pay good money for private firms to take it off their hands. Too much good money. In France and Germany, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn are totems of national pride; every member of SNCF staff is immaculately turned-out, everyone on Deutsche Bahn is unfailing polite. First class fares on both can bought cheaply, Deutsche Bahn will sell you an onward ticket to anywhere in Germany for €29 if you book early enough, and even its less luxurious long-distance trains are speedy and convivial ways to travel.
The third problem, unfortunately, is Eurostar itself – which should make travelling around Europe simple. But it doesn’t. Until this summer, it refused to sell reasonably-priced single fares to UK customers – ruling out “open-jaw” journeys where sometimes it’s easier to to travel in via Paris and back via Brussels. Now this is possible from £35 each way – still an £11 mark-up on its cheapest return, but a way of allowing people to discover Europe their way. Fly out somewhere and take a lazy train journey back? No problem. (The first time I ever did this, I had to pretend to be a Spanish customer to get a single ticket for £26, a loophole quickly stamped out.)
Its publicity also contradicts some of the reality of travelling via Eurostar. I came home from Cologne last Wednesday on a train which arrived In Brussels just too late to make the 30-minute check-in deadline to make the next train to London. Because high-speed tracks have a gap during the day where they are checked for faults, it left me with just under four hours to kick my heels in Belgium’s underwhelming capital. But later, I found Eurostar’s publicity suggested that the shorter check-in time would be fine after all. So is check-in really 30 minutes, or not?
Ticket sales are an issue, too – booking through tickets can be a fiddly process, with the best deals and simplest booking process usually coming from Rail Europe (SNCF’s international operation) rather than Eurostar. Heading into Germany? Then it’s best to play off Rail Europe against Deutsche Bahn’s website. Europe’s main high-speed operators launched the Railteam consortium in 2007 to crack this nut, but beyond a few leaflets and a lounge at Brussels-Midi, there’s no sign of much progress yet.
Then there’s the limited horizons of Eurostar itself. Why aren’t there direct trains to, say, Cologne or Amsterdam? It runs occasional ski trains to Avignon, but has surrendered the rest of the south of France to the likes of Ryanair. It seems odd to give up space on the UK’s only high-speed line for commuter trains when that space could be used to develop international services, or to finally link the continent with the north of England, assuming the Channel Tunnel isn’t full up as it is.
And finally – my biggest bugbear. Ebbsfleet bloody International, a white elephant station named after a place that doesn’t even exist. It sits beneath Northfleet mainline station, but has no connection to it – passengers are expected to take a bus to Greenhithe or Gravesend if they want to connect with south London and Kent trains. I’ve not even dared to try this, for it is simpler to carry on into London and take the Thameslink to London Bridge. All Ebbsfleet International was built for is cars – making a mockery of Eurostar’s “carbon neutral” claims.
Building an extension from the mainline above has been considered by Network Rail – but looks set to be ruled out on cost grounds (see page 144 of the weighty tome called Kent RUS draft). Which is a shame – say the current trains from Victoria to Dartford were extended onto Ebbsfleet, and those stations were brought into the Oyster card zones. Many south Londoners would see Ebbsfleet on the map, see it was in zone 8 (or whatever), and would be able to use that service to get to the Eurostar and would take some pressure off the Tube, Thameslink and St Pancras. But instead, Ebbsfleet seems to languish, a monument to our governments’ love of the car, deliberately kept away from the capital’s rail users. Network Rail does recommend “further development” of a footpath to Northfleet, though. Why nobody thought of it in the first place is a question that goes unasked.
If we’re ever going to try to wean people off polluting planes, we need to give people a choice. It’s relatively easy now, but it’s daunting for first-timers and could be so much better with a bit of thought and investment. Once you do this by train, it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to fly again. Eurostar’s move on single fares is a great, and long-overdue step forward. But it needs to recognise that there’s a whole continent of possibilities beyond those cheap fares to Paris and Brussels – and we need action to help it do that. Imagine a future where the businessman from Birmingham or a couple from Catford can go for a meeting in Madrid or a weekend in the Black Forest without even considering planes, and without having to crush through the London Underground or Paris Metro. It can happen – it’s just our imaginations are stopping us.