It is impossible not to be extremely excited about the opening of the high speed line between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel.
Certainly there is much in which to take pride. It has taken fantastic engineering skills to deliver a host of major new structures, such as the Medway bridge, the Thurrock viaduct, the Thames tunnels, and the London tunnels, all on time and on budget. And then there is the jewel in the crown, the astonishing blending of the old and the new to create the world’s greatest station at St Pancras (OK, readers, I challenge any of you to name me a greater one – emails to xian@ pro-net.co.uk).
All this makes November 14 an epoch-making event that will give Britain infrastructure that will long outlive anyone reading this magazine. Therefore it seems oh so churlish to complain and nitpick. But there are matters of great concern which need to be raised.
There is the tendency in this country to structure the finance of new infrastructure in such a way that the public, which has paid for the scheme, cannot benefit as much as it should. This is certainly the case with the Channel Tunnel (which received considerable hidden subsidy but which is priced out of the reach of many people) and the huge sums disbursed on the West Coast Main Line whose shiny new Virgin trains again are only accessible to the few except those who want to travel cheap off-peak and can book in advance.
The infrastructure that results is, therefore, not put to the best use. In France, fares for TGVs are set in such a way as to maximise passenger numbers, not necessarily revenue for the operator. Here the opposite is the case, which is nonsensical from an environmental point of view, too.
The second barrier to wider use of the new infrastructure is the lack of coordination in the rail industry. High speed lines across Europe tend to be separate from the rest of the domestic railway and this is particularly the case with High Speed One which, of course, is outside the franchised rail network. Yes, there is to be a new agency, Railteam, to coordinate bookings across Europe, but this will be confined to high speed lines, creating a sharp divide between old and new railways.
It may seem like good news that four domestic operators have reached agreement with Eurostar – East Midlands Trains, First Capital Connect, GNER and Virgin West Coast – to sell return fares to many destinations. However, let’s turn that around. This means that none of the other operators, notably First Great Western and the three south of the Thames franchises are offering deals, even though the line runs through the territory of one of them, Southeastern.
A third disappointment is that Eurostar itself is only operating to its traditional stations, Paris and Brussels, with seasonal trains to the French alps, Avignon and Disneyland. What a missed opportunity. There is major dissent within Eurostar about this and now the possibility of new routes being opened up is to be examined early in the New Year. But the fact that this did not happen before reflects badly on Eurostar.
Then there is a personal gripe, the ridiculous situation with bicycles. I live a mere 10 minutes’ cycle ride away from the station but not only is there great difficulty in carrying these on the trains, but somehow London & Continental allowed St Pancras to be developed without a thought for bicycle parking. Until the intervention of cycling groups, there were to be a mere 30 places tucked away at the wrong end of a car park, a good quarter of a mile walk from the entrance. Where else in Europe could such a basic mistake have been made?
The last disappointment is that the optimism which led to the renaming of the line as High Speed 1 is unfounded. There will be no High Speed 2 because there has been no long-term planning to accommodate it, and building it now would probably never justify a business or environmental case – despite the efforts of the Greengauge campaigners who want to see a high speed line built in stages. If there been more foresight and if all the energy that went into rail privatisation had, instead, gone into developing the rail network, we might have had a very much more optimistic future.
Nevertheless, this is the dawning of a new age of the train for Britain. It may be that the success of the concept skews the debate in favour of more railway development and expenditure. There were similar hopes when the Channel Tunnel first opened over a decade ago, but that was a hidden achievement which has always been underrated. The sheer magnificence of St Pancras may just ensure that it happens this time. With Ruth Kelly promising goodies for 2014-2019, perhaps it will be a real turning point for the railways. But don’t hold your breath.