The Chunnel

March 19, 2014

Paris, a city that has always held a romantic image from the films I watched as a child to the memories of driving around the Arc de Triomphe in multiple spirals as my father tried to fathom his way through the Paris traffic towards the ferry ports of France.

Returning as a business visitor, I was hopeful of a chance to recapture some of these memories, but it all seemed so brief. The romanticism I discovered lay in the windows of the small boutique stores that lined my walk from the hotel to my various meetings, windows that seemed so enticingly full of various food delicacies that only the French can package so beautifully.

Growing up in the UK and visiting any part of France always came with the excitement of a long ferry ride and a slow rail or road journey to my vacation destination. My parents never really gave in to those airline package deals until my brother and I had left for college.

So while in Paris I could not resist the chance to visit family in London, just a hop away or so it seemed. Initially thinking I would take a flight, the thought of battling my way out to an airport and going through airport security seemed unappealing especially when I could hop on board 'Eurostar' in Paris and be in the centre (sic) of London in 3 hours.

I can only say that romanticism does endure and the heritage of the railway-age lives on, gloriously, in the train ride from Paris to London. I ran out of my meeting at 4:30pm knowing I was pushing my luck to make my train but thanks to a nice English gentleman who I happened to spot in the Metro with a Eurostar ticket in hand, and his insistence I take the fast track route through the ticket check-in and security with him, meant I was sat on my assigned train seat departing Paris at 5:35pm.

The train pulled slowly out of the Gare Du Nord through the suburbs of Paris and into the dark as it sped to its constant lilting rhythm. It was hard to distinguish the smaller rural towns of Northern France as we skipped past them one by one, seen only as a rainy blur through the window. When we did slow it was to a brightly lit area and a curve that was the only demarcation we were entering the Channel Tunnel. It wasn't long before the rhythm of the train reverted back into its beat, and before I could decipher the rooftops of London an announcement stated we were five minutes from arriving at London St Pancras.

Though the train had a strange familiarity that recalled those many trips home as a student thanks to British Rail's standard seating, the trip was fast and convenient and not something I recall of those previous trips.

By 8:00pm, having taken the Underground, I was settled in my hotel waiting for family to arrive. They had the more arduous task of battling through traffic in the city of London.

On entering St Pancras for my return, I realized in my initial haste that I had missed out on some of the true glory and celebration of the age of the railway in this beautifully renovated hotel and station that had stood the test of time. Just as in a bygone age when it served as a place to rendezvous, it still served this duty graciously. Though it had traded the drifts of steam clouds and blackened brick for the sleek aerodynamics of the Eurostar trains parked handsomely in view for all to see. Though this station was slated for demolition in the 1960s, thanks to the Poet Laureate of the time, Sir John Betjeman, voicing strong opposition, the station remains a beautiful representation of a historic past but while portraying a strong identity for the future. The modern station was master-planned to create a major European high speed-crossing point led by Foster & Associates with the strong support of British Rail's own in house team and 800 million pounds of investment, over twice its intended costs, as well as many political and financial hiccups along the way.

"And if some Preservationist attempts to interfere
A 'dangerous structure' notice from the Borough Engineer
Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way-
The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay."
Executive - Sir John Betjeman

This is not a plea for preservation but more a reminder of how important it is to believe in the future. I feel the train has lost its glory for some, but as London and Paris link to other fast routes throughout Europe (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Cologne, Lyon, Marseille and Geneva). It seems inevitable to ask why we do not see this investment in the future for Northwest cities from Vancouver BC to Seattle and Portland. Even though high speed rail was an Obama administration goal we see no movement towards faster speeds or even investment in upgrading existing rail corridors in the Pacific Northwest, an area that is often at the forefront of many other sustainable approaches.

So in returning to romantic notions especially that of the American West and the part the train played in connecting it to the rest of the country, I live in hope that passenger rail will once again find its role in the future and its speeds and connections are comparable to those of Japan, China and Europe.