This marks a kind of betrayal. When, 21 years ago, François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher signed an agreement to build a rail tunnel between the UK and France, the benefits for South-east England were to be shared with the rest of Britain by virtue of a range of regional services. Plymouth would enjoy an overnight link with Brussels, while travellers from Cardiff could catch a train direct to Paris.
Over the years, this pretence was maintained at vast expense: rolling stock for Eurostar Regional was built; a catering shed was constructed at Manchester Piccadilly; and timetables at Edinburgh Waverley showed the schedules for a couple of seasons.
The result of this development will be clearer later this month, when the new high-speed Eurostar train service beds in. After an encouraging (but very brief) northbound start, it will swerve east, cross the East Coast main line and disappear into a hole in the ground. This, the "London Tunnel" , emerges 11 miles later in the Labour-voting wastes of southern Essex – an eccentric route reached following a political decision by the last Conservative government, keen to avoid upsetting the voters in key Kentish constituencies.The new link—dubbed, perhaps optimistically, "High Speed 1"—will allow trains to travel between London and the Channel Tunnel at 186mph (or 300km/h, if you're European), bringing the Continent a lot closer (the French port of Calais is now just under one hour out of London, which would (passports and ticket costs notwithstanding) place it within London's commuter belt). Once you're at Brussels-Midi, Europe's existing high-speed rail network (funded by wasteful Eurosocialist largesse in place of the British penny-pinching that's efficiently packing commuters in like sardines as it squeezes the last bit of utility out of the nation's creaking railway infrastructure) will take care of the rest. And as Europe gets closer, destinations in Britain get relatively more distant:
With trains to Brussels taking only 111 minutes, Norwich, Cardiff and Exeter share the ignominy of longer journey times. While the fastest trains to Leeds and Manchester narrowly beat those to Paris, the cities of Sheffield and Liverpool take longer to reach than the French capital.
Hull will suffer the ignominy of taking exactly the same length of time to reach from St Pancras as Disneyland Paris (and being considerably less fun when you get there).
Two locations are tantalisingly just three minutes over 10 hours away: Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland, and Berlin. Given the investment pouring into rail at the heart of Europe, Germany's capital will beat the 10-hour barrier well before the western end of the Caledonian Canal – which relies on rail infrastructure almost as old as the inland waterway.The article concludes with a list of the "20 top new rail destinations" on the Continent, each with an equivalent UK trip; Brussels is twinned with Bristol, Lyon with Glasgow, and Cologne (in the German hinterland) with Aberystwyth. The French Riviera is now officially closer than the Welsh Riviera.
There are vague noises about linking London to Birmingham by high-speed rail (that's the European definition of "high-speed", not the feeble local substitute). As for anywhere further north; forget it. It's unlikely that anyone living today will see a 300km/h rail link between London and Scotland (one such idea was floated a while ago, before being scrapped in favour of the more "sensible" alternative of making do with what we have). Then again, maybe if the oil crash really bites and cheap flights evaporate, priorities will shift somewhat.
Another unanticipated consequence of the shift in effective distances may be an undermining of Britain's traditionally isolationist outlook. When the north of France is firmly in the London commuter belt and moneyed Londoners start considering making homes there, will they stand for spending an hour each day going through passport control? There could be new pressure to get Britain to sign the Schengen treaty and abolish border controls with the EU. Granted, the counter-pressure from the Daily Mail Little Englanders, with their visions of dirty hordes of disease-carrying paedoterrorist welfare cheats at the inadequately fortified gates, is a pretty solid obstacle, though whether it will be so in a generation's time is an open question. Perhaps the Channel Tunnel will have turned out to be the trojan horse Mitterrand intended it as?
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