The opening of Britain’s first new main line railway for over a century is a momentous event – and a belated recognition that the most important invention of the 19th century has a major role to play in the 21st. What’s more, the refurbishment of St Pancras brings back to life an architectural masterpiece which will act as the centrepiece for the regeneration of a whole swathe of North London.
This being Britain, however, we have not got it quite right. Far from creating a seamless link with Europe that would bring us closer to the Continent, the Government has thrown up a set of barriers, practical and financial, that will prevent the public from benefiting fully from the wonderful assets created by £5.8bn of our money. While on the Continent frontiers are disappearing as a burgeoning high-speed network brings major cities ever nearer each other, Britain, despite its new line, will become ever more separate.
Let’s savour the good news first. St Pancras is far more than a marvellous revival of a building which came within a whisker of joining its neighbour, Euston and its famous arch, on the rubble pile. The reconstruction of St Pancras and the skilful blending in of new features shows that we do not have to resort to neo-classical pastiche when converting old buildings for new uses.
St Pancras was a mistake from the start. It was built by the Midland Railway in 1868 at the height of competitive folly between railway companies, not because it needed so much space but rather to overshadow its hated rival, the Great Northern, whose Kings Cross station it had been forced to use in the absence of its own London terminal. Midland finally cracked at Great Northern’s calculated insults and created two of the most significant urban structure built by the railways: the station and hotel topped by a statue of Britannia staring haughtily down towards King’s Cross, and the inelegantly named Barlow shed which, at the time, boasted the largest single steel span in the world. However, its construction nearly bankrupted the company.
Its long decline was hastened by war damage. It was only the efforts of Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society in the 1960s and early 1970s that spared the building but even then British Rail had little idea of what to do with it. Fortuitously, Michael Heseltine ensured that approach of the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was shifted from south to east London, and St Pancras seemed the obvious destination. The original idea had been for a huge terminal to be built underground at King’s Cross but the St Pancras option, though still expensive at £800 million, proved much cheaper.
The building is now simply a masterpiece, definitely overshadowing Grand Central Station in New York and even, arguably, the new Berlin Hauptbanhof as the greatest in the station in the world. Yet far from boasting a myriad of destinations like those two great hives of activity, St Pancras International will have a rather bare destination board showing just Paris and Brussels – and, in season, Disneyland, Bourg St Maurice and Avignon, with a few places in between. In other words, precisely the same ones as previously served by Eurostar from Waterloo. Apart possibly from a few new Eurostar destinations in France, it is doubtful whether St Pancras will ever see international trains to the range of destinations which is needed to make the expense worthwhile.
In a rational world, there would already be trains to Amsterdam, Cologne and other European destinations. But there are just too many obstacles in the way of creating such services. First, there is our obsession with security. For some unaccountable reason, Eurostar trains are treated like aeroplanes: everyone has to be searched before going on them, even though they are no more vulnerable to terrorism than any high-speed train.
Moreover, the trains themselves have to be stabled in secure area, which means that any platforms at a destination station have to be a sanitised area protected by expensive fences and patrolled by security guards. The UK Immigration Service also has to be accommodated, taking up valuable space. There is a further obstacle, too, in that ridiculously onerous safety procedures in the Channel Tunnel mean that only Eurostar and Le Shuttle rolling stock is, so far, allowed to use it.
Another deterrent is money. Because the new high speed line has been financed partly by the private sector, which requires a return on its investment, the cost of using the tracks will be high – some £2,000 per train – for just 67 miles. With a similar amount being charged by Eurotunnel, these high costs will push up fares. It means that the line will be used by just a fraction of the 20 trains an hour it is built to accomodate.
Eurostar says it will start considering new destinations in the New Year but has been too busy planning the move to do so before then. That betrays a lackadaisical attitude born of the fact that Eurostar is a completely separate company from London & Continental, which built the line: it appears to be in no hurry to introduce new services to make use of this tremendous new asset.
The problem is that there is no one to push for the creation of new services. It was British Rail which conceived of Eurostar and designed the service. London & Continental whose role was to build the line, not ensure that it would be used. With BR long gone and the railways now being run by a combination of civil servants at the Department for Transport and self-interested private companies, there is no nationwide rail organisation to put pressure on the government to facilitate the provision of new services.
We should applaud the magnificent engineering and design which has created this fabulous new line and renewed station. But the failure to make proper use of this fantastic new asset is nothing short of scandalous. Given that we are not going to get our £5.8bn back, ministers must work to ensuring that it is not wasted money. They could lower access charges on the line, encouraging companies to run more services. That would help regenerate Kent. And with a proper range of European destinations, it would let the re-born St Pancras fulfil its true function, as Britain’s grand new gateway to Europe.
Christian Wolmar’s Fire and Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain has just been published by Atlantic Books.