Two decades after tunnel opened, Eurostar shows UK-EU still on track

Europe Letter: The London-Europe rail link symbolises close ties that still bind nations

Twenty years ago this month, the first Eurostar service left London’s Waterloo station for Paris. The service still its challenges as many of the carriages feel dated, while wifi is not available. Photograph: Reuters

Twenty years ago this month, the first Eurostar service left London’s Waterloo station for Paris. The service still its challenges as many of the carriages feel dated, while wifi is not available. Photograph: Reuters

 

Zipping through the sedate countryside of northern Belgium, the distinctive blue and yellow blur of the Eurostar can be seen, darting through the tunnels towards Calais.

Twenty years ago this month, the first Eurostar service left London’s Waterloo station for Paris. Since then, the high-speed train has shuttled more than 150 million passengers between London and the French and Belgian capitals.

But the journey for one of Europe’s most innovative infrastructural projects has not always been smooth.

When Queen Elizabeth II and then French president François Mitterrand officially opened the Channel Tunnel in May 1994, the project was already one year late and billions of euro overbudget.

Plans to construct a cross-channel tunnel had been mooted as far back as the 19th century, with Napoleon III, William Gladstone and Lloyd George all toying with a plan. But it was under Margaret Thatcher and Mitterrand that the proposal really took shape.

Franco-British teamwork

The financial history of the Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel is complex.

The tunnel – which carries both Eurostar trains and passenger cars – was originally a joint venture between Britain, France and Belgium. On the British side, private-sector funding and a public share offering financed the project, with shares in Eurotunnel issued at £3.50 per share in December 1987. By the following year, the British government had to step in and effectively guarantee the project’s debt, with a series of costly debt restructurings taking place over the following decade.

Eurostar itself has performed better. The train operator, which is 55 per cent owned by French rail operator SNCF, 40 per cent by the British government and 5 per cent by Belgium, posted operating profits of £54 million last year. The British government looks set to capitalise on the service’s strong performance, with the treasury announcing this year it intends to sell its share. Eurostar may also face competition from Deutsche Bahn in the coming years, following a ruling which gave the German company the green light to operate routes through the tunnel.

Today, the experience of travelling by Eurostar is still exhilarating. The terminal in London has switched from Waterloo to the recently renovated St Pancras station, where the train pulls up beside the world’s longest champagne bar, beneath the gleaming glass ceiling of the Victorian structure. The journey time from London to Brussels is two hours and four minutes, with passengers reaching Gare du Nord in Paris in two hours and 15 minutes.

Nonetheless, Eurostar has its challenges. Twenty years on, many of the carriages feel dated, while wifi is not available. Though not as laborious as the modern airport experience, queuing at the terminals at each departure point can be just as stressful. The price point is also high, with advance booking essential, putting paid to the notion one can simply “hop on a train” to Paris, Brussels or London.

Future plans

It is tempting to see the Channel Tunnel as a metaphor for Britain’s relationship with the European Union. “It’s the end of British insularity,” proclaimed the right-leaning French newspaper Le Figaro when the tunnel opened. British insularity now seems more entrenched than ever.

That Thatcher – arguably the most Eurosceptic of British prime ministers –was the driving force behind the Channel Tunnel, proves that the possibility of closer economic ties between Britain and Europe far outweighs any concerns.

Twenty years on, many will be hoping these economic arguments will continue to win the day, as the debate about Britain’s future within the EU intensifies ahead of a possible referendum on membership.

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