London to Brussels on Eurostar
I’ve been looking forward to it for years, ever since I found out the new Eurostar terminal would be at St Pancras, just across the street from King’s Cross Station, So I was anxiously awaiting the day when I could, in theory at least, jump on the train at Cambridge and then simply transfer onto the Paris or Brussels high-speed express which would plop me into the centre of either of those towns in something like two and a half hours – about the time it took me to commute to work, from Cambridge to London, on one of those all-too-familiar ‘very bad days’.
I wanted to take the train because I hate taking planes. Not the flying bit – that’s usually OK. It’s dealing with airports I despise. But train stations are becoming more like airports these days – down to the x-ray machines and metal detectors. Just to enter the Eurostar waiting room you have to contend with all those devices that scan your luggage and your self – empty your pockets of metal, stuff your mobile into your bag, undo your coat, take off your hat, throw them into a plastic tray and then pick it all up again at the sanitised end of the conveyor belt while trying to keep track of your ticket and your passport. A woman next to me wasn’t allowed to bring her coffee through to the other side even though no one said anything to me about my bottle of water. So it’s not liquids per se. Maybe Eurostar gets a kickback from the drinks concession. Who knows? The man who told her to dump it just shrugged when she asked why. But she didn’t put up a fuss. She didn’t want to be branded a terrorist just for a cup of java.
It’s a quick walk up the ramp that leads to the track where the quasi-gleaming and aerodynamically sculptured Eurostar train lies in wait. The vaulted ceiling, glass and erector-set metal, contrast strikingly with the red brick of the old Victorian showpiece, St Pancras, that had faded into disuse as the commuter trains had been shifted to nearby Euston. When the sun shines through the great domed ceiling it must be a marvellous sight but there’s no sun today nor was there yesterday nor will there be tomorrow.
I find my car without having to walk a quarter mile to the front of this enormously long, sleekly burnished chain of aluminium carriages. How many coaches are there? Lots. The train extends out further than I can see. ‘Man, that’s some choo-choo!’ a wide-eyed guy says, in an exaggerated American drawl. And he’s not far wrong except it doesn’t say, ‘Choo-choo’ anymore. Those days are gone. It doesn’t even say ‘hisss!’ More a like the metallic whirr of a top-flight vacuum cleaner just before it starts to suck things up.
I stow my bags in the rack at the front as you enter the carriage and then make my way down the carpeted aisle to find my place. And joy of joys! The seat next to me is vacant. I settle in, brushing my bottom back and forth to test the upholstery (it’ll do) and then hold my breath, counting off the minutes till I can safely conclude I’ll have space to spread out – at least till we reach the other pick-up point at the south side of London, Ebbsfleet International (a rather ponced-up name for a whistle-stop) where we’ll take on a few more passengers. When Eurostar had left from Waterloo, before the high speed link was completed, the only stop on the British side of the Channel was at Ashford, right before you hit the tunnel. Now they’ve put it on the far side of the London orbital and the people from Kent who could have once joined us around Dover now have to drive an hour north just to go south again.
But for me, coming down from Cambridge, the trip was a doddle – zipping down to King’s Cross and then walking just a few feet over the road to what has become an extension of London’s northern terminus. Quick, yes, but hardly romantic. I suppose it’s not meant to be as the idea behind this very expensive venture was to create a long-distance commuter run for Euro-bureaucrats and day-trippers, which, by definition is – or should be - quite matter-of-fact (except you still have to search for your passport going to and leaving from Britain unlike the rest of the European Union).
The announcement over the speakers that the automatic doors are about to shut is in three languages - English, French and Flemish - as my train is bound for Brussels. Now the countdown begins – just two minutes left to go. A woman behind me makes a show of last minute phone calls, one after another – I’m on the train! Goodbye! Hello! I’m on the train! Goodbye! Hello! I’m on the train! Goodbye! … And then we’re off! Smooth as silk through the long, concrete corridor, an interminable platform winding on and on like an endless ribbon of pavement that finally disappears into infinity like a painting of a highway that dovetails into some alternative universe on the other side of the canvass.
Now that we’re on the move, I’ve had a chance to check out the toilets – two on either side of the car at the front end by the baggage compartment. Both are clean but one of the toilets is stuffed up. Already. And we’re only five minutes out of London. By the time I’m back in my seat, the train has really picked up speed. We’re still in a tunnel – have been for about ten minutes and – let’s see – if we’re going 120 miles an hour (full speed is 186), it must be at least 20 miles long.
Finally we emerge. I see if I can recognise the landscape. This side of London seems to be sparsely populated – some factories, warehouses, junkyards, a scattering of houses. We’re paralleling a highway divided from the track-bed by a rampart which sometimes blocks our view – though, in fact, there’s little view to be had.
In just fifteen minutes we’ve reached Ebbsfleet International were a few more passengers come aboard. We’re only here for five minutes and then we’re off again. Now the concrete ramparts have been replaced by steep grass verges that separate us from the road. We’re deeply into Kent – though there’s few reference points to confirm it. Simply more scraggly trees shivering in the gloom and fields with nothing to harvest.
The train is shooting along now. The countryside’s starting to roll slightly but the track-bed is smooth – no bumps, no clickity-clacks, just that steady hum of a transcendental electromagnetic force-field. I lean back in my seat, well padded with head-rests that curve round your ears like oversize earmuffs. Not a lot of leg room but better than the economy section of a plane. The fold-down trays are large and secure for food or books or writing equipment. Not the flimsy sort you find on airliners. The passengers seem pleased. They’re eating, reading, chatting - doing what passengers do when they’re happily in motion with the future ahead of them, beckoning on, and the dreary past left behind.
For an instant the sun is winter bright. It pours in through enormous windows that are still streaked from rains even though there hasn’t been any for days. It soon turns to gloom again. We pass a flock of sheep. The factories and junkyards have transformed into farms: sheep and cows, cows and sheep, sheep and cows. It’s not really what one would call bucolic – nothing to stir the poetic urge. But even if it were more beautiful, we’d hardly have time to appreciate it as the scenery outside the streaky windows has become a blur. We’re zipping along at such a pace I can barely make out a miniscule lake with a bevy of birds taking flight as we pass them.
It’s 1:32 and already we’re starting to slow as we near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. First mooted in 1802, after several false starts it was finally completed in 1994. At 37.9 kilometres, it’s the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Trucks are anxiously queued on the roadside waiting their turn to enter the hole that was dug by 13,000 workers over the course of seven years. Our train ignores the line up, speeding along its dedicated path – oblivious to the oil guzzling vehicles choking on their fumes. Woosh! We’re in! And then everything goes dark.
Things seem well built on this train. There’s a minimum of plastic. Tough iron hooks for hanging stuff, heavy metal trays, sturdy seats well upholstered – even the overhead luggage racks seem firm and solid, not clunky-junky like some of the trains that once were British Rail. The ventilation is also good, well filtered and quite necessarily so since we’re travelling deep under the channel now.
In the darkness of the tunnel, I’m beginning to nod off just as we start to slow. After only twenty minutes we’ve reached the other side and the train spits itself out into France, which, for the first time in memory is even greyer than Britain. We pass through a spaghetti junction of rails which veer off in three directions all surrounded by barb wire fences which, I suppose, is the last attempt to keep refugees out of England.
We’re starting to pick up speed again. This part of France looks similar to Kent in Southern England – scraggly trees and fallow fields. Mist is rising from the earth giving an eerie feel. But there’s more space here – more room to breath. Nothing, though, to catch the eye except a trail of electrical pylons. In the distance a tiny village, the houses huddled round the church steeple.
Despite the similarities, France looks more relaxed, more comfortable with itself. I don’t know why I make this assumption. Is it all in my head? It just looks neater, more cared for. The trees are more varied and have been planted to design. There’s a pleasant undulation to the land. What houses you see, are architecturally dissimilar to the ones in Britain. Not cookie-cutter squares or rectangles. Not until we reach the suburbs.
Are we in Belgium yet? How would we know if we were? The borders have been abolished by the treaty of Schengen. Zip! Zap! It seems we’re here. But no, we’re not. This isn’t Brussels but Lille. A number of people prepare to get off. Of course, if I had looked at the time, I would have known. It’s only 2:30 (3:30 Euro-time, 15:30 train time). We’re due in Brussels at 3:03 British time, another half hour from now.
We’ve been paralleling a large highway for a while. The sky’s so grey the cars are using their headlights even though it’s the middle of the day. The countryside is grey as well. Grey and boring. Scrubland and vacant earth. For a while, high grass verges protect our eyes. Then all is flat again. Ho hum.
The outskirts of Brussels - it seems we’re sneaking in the back door. You can tell we’re coming into a city by the universal graffiti on the walls of the warehouses that line the way. We’re slowing now, gliding alongside a canal with a pleasant walkway and then, an instant later, we reach the inner suburbs, older, more solid than the outer ring of pre-fab homes – but then, in a split second, factories appear out of nowhere. One after another. We join a complex of railways, the track bed widening geometrically – two rails, then four, then eight, then sixteen. The terminus is just beyond. And suddenly we’ve arrived. Ding, dong, ding. Brussels Central. Bruxelles Midi. Bang on time. If I had flown, I’d now be standing in a queue to have my passport checked and then to collect my luggage (if it arrived) and lastly to find the metro into town. Eurostar has left me smack in the centre. I grab my luggage and leave wondering why anyone would ever take an airplane from London to Brussels or Paris anymore.
25 December 2007