Britain's New European Rail Terminal London Station Reawakens in Victorian Splendor

London's St. Pancras station has been restored to its old Victorian glory to become the new home for high-speed trains to continental Europe. Is this the dawn of a new heyday for British train travel after decades of decline? Not quite.
Von Ronan Thomas

London is getting a new landmark -- and Britain's public transport system is making a long overdue stride towards a high-tech future.

On November 14, after 11 years construction, a new British high speed rail link and Eurostar terminal -- St. Pancras International -- both open for business. Queen Elizabeth is due to officially open St. Pancras at a ceremony on Tuesday evening.

The price tag is £5.9 billion ($12.3 billion), Britain’s largest rail investment ever. Eurostar, which operates trains from London to Paris and Brussels, says journey times will be cut by an average of 25 minutes.

Eurostar services now switch from Waterloo International to leave St. Pancras on a new 25-mile section of track called High Speed 1. Hurtling 68 miles across Kent to the Channel Tunnel’s mouth at Folkestone, the trains will pass through new stations at Stratford and Ebbsfleet at 186 mph.

Not quite the flashing 200mph reached on the French TGV rail network. Or on the benchmark Japanese intercity rail services. But still pretty close and a fillip to British transport pride after years of dreadful rail performance. London to Paris now takes 2 hours, 15 minutes, London to Brussels 1 hour, 51 minutes; a shaving of 25 minutes apiece.

There will be 17 trains each day from St. Pancras to Paris alone. The new link also promises a £10 billion regeneration of the Thames Gateway region and a new rail service for London’s Olympic Games in 2012.

The engineering achievement -- 30 miles of tunnelling, new track, signalling and station building by London and Continental Railways -- is matched by an £800 million revamp and glass canopy extension for one of London’s oldest rail termini, St Pancras Station.

A London landmark since 1868, the station has been completely refurbished and now linked by six Tube lines and seven rail connections.

Cathedral-Like Station

But the real delights lie inside. The profound Christian faith of its Victorian architect invests it with the aspect of a cathedral. St Pancras’ huge iron shed roof has been replaced by an awe-inspiring single glass span.

Light now floods into the 230-foot-wide interior. Ironwork, blackened by the grime of a century’s steam and soot, has been repainted Victorian sky blue. The sub levels -- originally a store for beer barrels -- are now an up-market shopping emporium.

At platform level, international business passengers can now slake their thirst at Europe’s longest champagne bar, whilst watching the Eurostars slink in and out.

Then there is the refurbishment of the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel, one of London’s greatest architectural masterpieces and something of a film star in its own right. Built in 1876 by George Gilbert Scott, it’s a building so Gothic in appearance one expects to see bats flapping around the clock tower.

It’s one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival civic buildings anywhere. Modelled on the 13th century Cloth Hall at Ypres and Salisbury Cathedral, it was the first hotel in London to operate an elevator: the attendant offered brandy to nervous passengers ascending for the first time.

In the 1930s, the Australian cricket team caused damage by practice bowling along its echoing upper corridors. Closed in 1935 to become railway offices and threatened with demolition in the 1960s, it was saved for the nation by the heroic efforts of English poet Sir John Betjeman, a staunch defender of all things Victorian.

Business travellers to and from Europe can enjoy its opulence again from 2009 when it becomes a 200-room, five-star Marriott Renaissance Hotel and luxury apartments. A private penthouse is for sale at £10 million.

New Dawn for British Train Travel?

So is Britain finally getting the travel network it deserves after decades of under-investment, mismanagement, financial red tape and neglect? Not quite. Whilst the route from the Tunnel is now turbo-charged and St. Pancras newly resplendent, Britain’s travel infrastructure still creaks.

Consider the woes of Heathrow Airport and the lack of integrated TGV-style high speed services to serve northern England and Scotland. And don’t get passengers started on London’s overcrowded and strike-prone Tube.

There are encouraging signs for British transport further down the line, however. Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal Five opens in March 2008.

Handling an extra 30 million passengers, above the current 67 million, this will alleviate Heathrow’s notorious reputation for overcrowding, baggage reclaim shambles and the worst delays of any airport in Europe. Next is Crossrail -- a new £16 billion rail project announced last month. Operating from 2015, it will bisect London from Maidenhead to Essex, adding a long overdue west-east transport artery.

Meanwhile, the new St. Pancras adds much to the pleasure of European business travel. Ever since the Channel Tunnel opened for business in 1994, the British end has carried 80 million passengers and successfully tempted passengers away from air services.

But it’s been a poor relation to the French high-speed rail offering. After whooshing across France and Belgium through the tunnel, the Eurostars ambled into Waterloo International on a suburban network designed and built in the mid-nineteenth century. When senior executives of SNCF, the French state railway, travelled on the first test runs into Waterloo in the early 1990s they were reduced to helpless laughter, as their trains crept through London suburbia.

With the new route and the Gothic splendours of St. Pancras reborn, this Anglo-French divide is partially redressed. There are upsides for the French too; they’ll now longer have to enter the UK at a station named Waterloo.

European business and leisure travellers will love St. Pancras. Like the revamped rail stations at Dresden and Leipzig, it's a marvel to match any European rival -- even if world-class improvement to Britain’s ageing travel networks remains a work in progress.