For all the publicity in London about the opening of the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, passengers leaving Paris on its inaugural day wouldn’t have been any the wiser. The lack of Parisian interest in the new London terminal was underlined by the ticket prices: while it would have cost me over £100 to book a place on a train leaving St.Pancras that day, the cost of a ticket in the other direction was just £29! I can forgive the lack of excitement from that end of the line however. When it comes to high speed train networks, France’s is in its late twenties whilst Britain’s is still teething.
Until yesterday, once the tunnel had been crossed and England reached, passengers were treated to a short stretch of tantalizing high-speed rail (the first part of the new link has been in use for some time now) before the trains slowed to a dismal trundle on the old line. Well, no more. Unfortunately it was dark so I did not get to see all that pristine Kent countryside that had seen routes for the line changed so many times. Before I knew it, a tunnel under the Thames, then we appeared to be over-ground and then back under again. We popped up for air again at what I guess was the building site for Stratford International before tunneling our way under North London. I remember five years ago a friend of mine living in Highbury had complained of rumbling under his basement flat for a period of about a week or so. He found out, from the council I believe, that those noises had been the tunnel digging machines digging those very tunnels that I was zooming through significantly faster.
The train popped of the ground one last time and we were cruising into the magnificently lit train station. Words do not do justice to what an amazing site the new station is. Passengers off the train for the first time on these platforms walked in eerie gob-smacked silence. The train shed, with its arches of ‘heritage Barlow blue’ which soar over the tracks to support 18 000 panes of self cleaning glass, makes for quite a destination. Indeed there were plenty of people there who had just come for the opening. At the end of the platforms they posed for photos beneath the 9m tall sculpture of a couple kissing. Europe’s longest champagne bar was not long enough to accommodate the masses who came to toast the new station.
I was grabbed for an interview by BBC Radio London who were broadcasting live from the concourse. I think I ticked a few of their boxes: not only had I just stepped off a train from Paris, but I was an enthusing engineer (and, as a bonus, someone whose father had arranged the medley of French songs played that afternoon by the LSO Brass section as part of the opening celebrations). On air, I was asked about how long it must have taken to paint the roof, a question to which I had no answer but assured them that it must take less time than that for the Forth Rail Bridge.
For me, St Pancras represents the first completed major engineering project university colleagues of mine have been involved with during their summer placements. St Pancras celebrates the engineering of a bygone era, is a fine example of how old can become new, and puts international rail travel back into the national consciousness. Not a bad start!