On track for a new golden age of rail

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am


I took the train to Europe the other day.' 'Eurostar?'

'Well, I can sing a bit, but I'm no Dean Martin.' OK, it's a bad joke, but it would raise a smile for staff at Eurostar; recognition, perhaps, that despite all their woes - the company has not made a profit in its 13-year history - it remains the sole passenger train operator under the English Channel.

Just as vacuum cleaners meant Hoover and baked beans meant Heinz, a train to Europe has always meant Eurostar. Sadly for Eurostar, nothing lasts forever. Yesterday, Deutsche Bahn, the German rail operator, said it could not rule out applying to run its super-fast and rather swish ICE trains to London from Cologne via Brussels.

And just when things were looking up for Eurostar. With overcrowded terminals, air traffic control problems and security delays at London airports, allied with fears about aviation's contribution to global warming, taking the train to Paris and Brussels has become a no-brainer for Londoners.

As a result, Eurostar boosted passenger numbers by a record 14 per cent last year, a figure soon to be smashed, no doubt, thanks to the much-fanfared opening next week of the GBP6 billion (HK$97 billion), 112km high-speed track from north London's St Pancras station to Europe. The new line cuts the journey to Paris and Brussels by 40 and 50 minutes to 2 hours 15 minutes and 1 hour 50 minutes respectively.

St Pancras is a far better destination for the French than the current terminal at Waterloo, which reminds them of Napoleon's defeat each time they set foot in London.

St Pancras is one of London's most iconic buildings, a high Victorian, red-brick gothic home to the 300-room Midland Grand Hotel and once nicknamed the 'Cathedral of the Railways'. In 2009 it will become the five-star Renaissance St Pancras. With return tickets for about GBP60, the journey will no longer be a tiring odyssey.

Parisian clubbers won't mind, they already flock to London for Saturday night, skipping expensive hotels and partying until they return early on Sunday. Lille is expected to attract London commuters, it being just 80 minutes away on November 14. This year, the fashionable London Christmas office parties will be in Paris or Brussels, taking advantage of cheaper food and wine.

Newspaper travel supplements are salivating over the prospect of reaching Bruges in 3 hours 50 minutes (GBP59) and Marseille in under seven hours (GBP109). Many predict a new golden age of rail travel, with luxury overnight sleepers hurtling from London to Venice (14 hours).

Businessmen can now reach Cologne in five hours, Frankfurt and Amsterdam in under six. A fact far from lost on Deutsche Bahn.

It has applied to use the Channel tunnel for trains to Brussels and beyond, exploiting its high-speed lines and ICE trains (think a business class airline without wings).

The bid is being backed by Eurotunnel, which owns the 'Chunnel', not least to help service its vast debts. It points out that only three trains run each hour at present despite capacity for 20.

Perhaps Londoners will have to amend the joke: 'I took a train to Europe the other day.'

'Eurostar?' 'Nope. Deutsche Bahn.' Sadly for Eurostar, it is no laughing matter.