High-speed trains will transform Europe

The end of the Eurostar platform at Gare du Nord is where London meets Paris. It’s the perfect spot for connoisseurs of greeting gaffes, because everyone is trying to figure out which country’s rules to play by. Near-snogs end up as face-bumps, attempted handshakes turn into waves, and recipients of hugs look horrified. When the greeting is only between French people, dignified efficiency rules. Yet the English always win this platform game, because an English greeting is only appropriate if it feels thoroughly awkward. You need to mess it up to get it right.

That is how London and Paris have always been talked about: in terms of their differences. However, it’s time to jettison this outdated mode. Gradually the two cities are becoming twins, if not identical ones. They now inhabit the same neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood is expanding as high-speed train lines from Paris multiply. This is a story of two great cities emerging from isolation – and of western Europe beating the world – thanks partly to a train.

Until the 1990s, To Britons Paris seemed almost as exotic as Jakarta, and more so than Sydney or San Francisco. There was that famous smell of the French Métro, the mix of perfume and Gauloises cigarettes. There was the bizarre sight of people drinking wine on pavements. There was all that philosophy. The exoticism of Paris became such a staple of English-language writing that comedians began to parody it. “I come upon a man at an outdoor café,” writes Woody Allen. “It is André Malraux. Oddly, he thinks that I am André Malraux.”

Paris and London never quite moved in sync. In the war Paris was occupied, London bombed. Afterwards Paris became a sort of refugee camp for peasants fleeing the land, something London had been in the early 19th century. My father, who studied in Paris in the early 1960s, says that taking the ferry to England felt like going from a poor country to a rich one.

Building an underwater tunnel had been an obvious idea for some time. Napoleon had called the Channel a mere “ditch that will be crossed when someone has the boldness to try it”. When he described his scheme for a tunnel to the leader of the Whig party in 1803, the Englishman exclaimed: “It is one of those grand projects that we can do together!” It took another 191 years to complete the job. Influential Britons, including Napoleon’s old enemy the Duke of Wellington, thought that next thing you knew a French army would be charging up the staircases into central London. One attempt to dig the tunnel was abandoned in 1974. Finally, in the 1980s, under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher and the then French president François Mitterrand, the job began in earnest. Mitterrand was a stationmaster’s son, while Thatcher favoured cars as an individualistic mode of transport, but Mitterrand won the argument: the tunnel would be chiefly for trains, not cars.

When the first trains ran between Waterloo station and Gare du Nord on November 14 1994, they were a revelation. They didn’t merely bring Paris as close to London as the north of England was. They also signalled a second golden age of train travel. My colleague Philip Stephens noted in a column in the FT around this time that if you wanted comfort, you took a plane. Trains were considered second-rate transport. In the mid-1990s, most European rail journeys still took as long as they had before the war. France was the only continental country to have embraced high-speed trains: its TGVs were part of the age-old attempt to give Paris influence on recalcitrant regions. The early Eurostars raced through France but trundled through Britain.

Those first trains connected two fairly insular cities. I had returned to Britain from Boston the summer before the Eurostar was launched, and after the Technicolor US, I was shocked by dingy London. Tired people in grey clothes waited eternities on packed platforms for 1950s Tube trains. Coffee was an exotic drink that barely existed, like ambrosia. Having a meal outside was illegal. The city centre was uninhabited, and closed at 11pm anyway. Air travel was heavily regulated, and so flying to Paris was expensive. Going by ferry took a whole miserable day. If you did get across, and only spoke the bad French most of us learnt at school, it was hard to communicate with any natives.

And then both cities began to change. Thanks to rising incomes, cheap flights – and of course the Eurostar – in the mid-1990s Londoners began to find out how much nicer Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris were than their home town. In response, London began to work on its weaknesses. You could finally sit outside, albeit usually on plastic chairs amid car fumes. You could get coffee, of sorts. You no longer needed to be a sniffer-dog to find a beer after 11pm. The Tube got better. Even the food got better.

As soon as London improved, it became unaffordable. I came to Paris largely because I had ignored Philip Stephens’ advice to buy a flat in London. Over a disgusting lunch in the FT’s canteen in 1995, Stephens, backed by my boss Andrew Adonis, the future transport secretary, had told me that London house prices couldn’t go lower. I argued that they would never recover. By 2001, priced out of the soaring London market, faced with the choice of buying either a one-bedroom flat in Kilburn or something absurdly cheap in central Paris, I did the latter. I popped over on Eurostar, and, as I never tire of telling people, bought a pretty little flat for £60,000. It’s now my office, where I’m writing this. The Eurostar changed my life.

When I told George, a French friend in London, about my purchase, he was worried for me. He foresaw culture shock and loneliness. “Paris is really quite different from London,” he warned. That remains somewhat true, and yet in eight years here I’ve never got round to feeling homesick. It’s partly thanks to the Eurostar. It’s hard to miss London when you could be there by lunchtime if you wanted. Paris isn’t fully abroad any more. The city is now packed with British residents – because of the Eurostar, because of 2001-era house prices, and because Paris is still Paris. Moreover, friends from Britain are often in town for dinner. They are usually more fun in Paris than in London, because they are more relaxed in this more bucolic city, talk less about house prices and don’t face an hour-long Tube journey home afterwards.

It helped that Paris has acquired something of London’s great virtue, its internationalism. The “capital of the 19th century” had been on a long slide into provincial insularity. But with the inventions of the internet and Eurostar, and globalisation in general, many Parisians began to see that there was a wonderful new life to be seized if you spoke English. Paris could choose to become an inhabited museum, a sort of chilly Rome, but if it wanted to remain in touch with the latest ideas, the Parisian establishment would have to learn English. By and large, the younger members did. The canard that Parisians refuse to speak English is a decade out of date. As I write, every car on the street outside my office is festooned with a flyer for English lessons for children. Parisian parents are now so keen to induct their toddlers into the global language that speaking English has become a weapon for us Anglophone parents in the battle for a spot in a crèche.

When you return to London, you still see the differences from Paris that hundreds of years of stereotypes have attuned us to find. On the Eurostar, French children are a bit quieter and cleaner. The English passengers dress with more colour. If you arrive at St Pancras in the evening, and drag your bags down into the Tube, you are struck by all the tipsy raucous Londoners bulging out of their weird youth-culture outfits. Adventure is in the air the way it isn’t in Paris.

Yet more and more, what strikes you when going from Paris to London are the similarities. The Eurostar transports a growing franglais tribe whose mascots are the bilingual train staff. Some members of the tribe, like Penelope Fillon, the French prime minister’s British wife, live in mixed families. Others, like George and myself, have effectively swapped lives. With about a quarter of a million French inhabitants, London is now officially the sixth-largest French city, as big as Strasbourg or Nice. Some Eurostar passengers, like my friend Paul, commute multiple times a week from flats in Paris to jobs in London. It’s getting harder to guess a passenger’s nationality from his clothing or weight. You look from Frenchman to Briton, and from Briton to Frenchman, and from Frenchman to Briton again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.

London increasingly feels like Paris. The majestic restored St Pancras station is nothing but a French-style grand projet. So are the Tate Modern, the Olympic Games of 2012 (which London stole from Paris’s grasp) and the Millennium Bridge, which suspiciously resembles Paris’s Pont des Arts. In the arrivals hall at St Pancras you are practically assaulted with Parisian-style gourmet food: “English asparagus”, the “Sourced Market”, a “Créateur Chocolatier” advertising its “Sommelier Collection”, but also ginger beef wraps and couscous salads. The champagne and oyster bars are upstairs. The fear of British Europhobes has come to pass: with increased contact, the UK has become like the continent. No wonder that in March, Lord Adonis announced his ministry’s plans for a national network of high-speed trains – finally, a British TGV.

Of course everything could be better. The Eurostar now resembles a tatty vision of the future, circa 1994. The much-trumpeted journey time of two hours and 15 minutes from city to city is in reality more like three hours, because you have to pass through security controls and two passport counters. The Channel Tunnel is suffering the eternal fate of British infrastructure: the first of its kind anywhere, it has also aged first. Just before Christmas last year, snow, cold and breakdowns stopped the trains. Thousands of passengers were stranded for hours without water, food and air conditioning, many of them returning from Disneyland Paris with small children. Yet even then it was hard to think of aircraft as the future of travel. Later that week, on Christmas day, a Nigerian landing at Detroit airport tried to blow up a bomb hidden inside his underpants. He made flying more miserable than it already was. Then came the Icelandic ash cloud.

The future of travel is more likely to be the budding family of moderately green, high-speed European trains. Paris is becoming their hub. You can get to Brussels in under an hour and a half; planes no longer even fly the route. It’s three hours by train to Switzerland, the Netherlands or the French south coast. Western Germany is less than four. I’ve even travelled by train to Turin, because it’s much nicer than flying, and barely takes longer. The newer high-speed trains leave the Eurostar behind. On the Thalys to Amsterdam you jump on the train without anyone checking your passport or bags, and you get WiFi.

These trains are more than just amenities for spoiled travellers. Western Europe’s unique selling point has always been fast travel between cities. The region’s good luck is what the historian Norman Davies calls a “user-friendly climate”: it is mild and rainy. Because of that, the land is fertile, allowing hundreds of millions of people to inhabit a small area. That creates networks. For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast. The “Scientific Revolution” of the 16th and 17th centuries could happen in western Europe because its scientists were near each other, debating and networking.

A typical product of that network was the lens-grinder, a crucial new machine in the development of the microscope in the early 1660s. Robert Hooke in London invented a new grinder, which made lenses so accurate that Hooke could publish a detailed engraving of a louse attached to a human hair. But meanwhile Sir Robert Moray, a Scot in London who knew what Hooke was up to, was sending letters in French about the new grinder to the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. Moray and Huygens “sometimes wrote to each other several times a week,” writes the historian Lisa Jardine. Their letters crossed the Channel in days, or about as quickly as mail does now. Meanwhile the French astronomer Adrien Auzout in Paris was getting copies of some of their letters. So Hooke’s breakthroughs were reaching his continental competitors almost instantly.

This irritated Hooke. But the proximity of many thinkers created an intellectual ferment. That is why so many of the great scientific discoveries were made in western Europe. These discoveries then helped make the region rich. After the second world war, those scientific networks shifted to the US. But the US can never replicate the London-Paris-Brussels nexus, not even if the American northeastern corridor acquires its own high-speed trains, as it should. All the current talk of Europe being “left behind” by the rest of the world, how it’s become a sort of cemetery with great art, ignores how high-speed trains are renewing the region’s USP. The railroads made America. Now they are remaking western Europe at high speed.

Simon Kuper is a regular contributor to the FT Weekend Magazine. His last piece for the magazine was on the ‘Capello effect’; read it at www.ft.com/capello

Fast track to glory

The iron road is a 19th-century invention set to flourish in the 21st, writes Christian Wolmar. After being threatened by extinction in the face of a pincer movement from cars and aircraft in the second half of the 20th century, trains are re-establishing themselves as a crucial part of many countries’ infrastructure.

The most visible signs of this success are the high-speed trains such as Eurostar that are now operating at speeds of up to 200mph in more than a dozen countries and planned for many more. They have not only revolutionised train travel by luring people from flight, they have become emblems of a nation’s modernity: no Japanese tourist brochure would be complete without a photo of the Shinkansen high-speed train rushing past Mount Fuji.

While France currently has more than 1,000 miles of high-speed line, Spain is set to become the European country with the highest mileage as it completes an ambitious programme to build 6,000 miles of track by 2020 with the aim of bringing every sizeable town within 30km of a high-speed station. But China dwarfs the scale of ambition of any other country, with 4,000 miles already open and a plan to have a 30,000-mile network by the end of the decade. China is even considering the development of a high-speed line between Beijing and Europe.

The railway renaissance is not only about high-speed trains. Freight trains are still the preferred carrier for long-distance traffic, like the vast numbers of containers arriving on the US’s West Coast, or for minerals that are taken from mines to ships by rail, the very purpose for which the railways were originally created. This month, for example, massive 240-wagon iron-ore trains have started running along a newly constructed line in Labrador, Canada.

Then there are the equally prosaic metro systems that are being built in the most unlikely places, such as Dubai, which opened last year, and obscure Eastern European towns such as Kharkov and Yekaterinburg. There are more than 130 metro systems around the world with half a dozen more being opened every year.

Driving the railways’ revival is a combination of road congestion, comfort and, increasingly, their green credentials. Railways can be powered by renewable and low-carbon sources such as nuclear or wind-generated electricity, while aviation is stuck with oil-based fuel. Far from being superseded by the cars and aircraft, the train may outlive them all.

Christian Wolmar’s latest book, ‘Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World’, is published by Atlantic Books

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