Posts Tagged ‘Channel Tunnel’

Channel Tunnel, Thatcher’s muddle

Friday, 12 September 2008

Suspension of services notice on the Eurostar website

(click on image to go to the Eurostar website)

If one was superstitiously minded, one might think the BTWT editorial team clairvoyant. On Thursday 4 September, we announced that our services would be temporarily suspended and we carried an illustration of a train stopped by water on the track. A week later, Eurostar announced that the UK’s most famous train service, which normally goes under water, is suspended by a fire in a lorry on the Euroshuttle freight service. Of course, this is only a coincidence.

For 130 years, from 1856 to 1986, the idea of a railway link under the channel was promoted. It met with official hostility and indifference. There were actually two attempts to build the tunnel in 1881 and 1974. The 1881 attempt was linked to Sir Edward Watkin’s plan for a high speed railway route from Manchester to the continent. The 1974 attempt was a government funded project which was still primarily a link between the railways of Britain and France.

BTWT is apolitical and does not care a toss about party politics. However, we do not hesitate to name politicians who play an important role in shaping transport policy. When the idea of building the Channel Tunnel was revived again in 1981, it was Mrs Thatcher who insisted that it’s main purpose was to be a shuttle for road vehicles. The extra size of the tunnel’s main bores, to accommodate road lorries carried on special rail vehicles, added considerable to the project’s cost and complexity. While the tunnel itself received no public funds, two massive motorways, the M20 and M2, were cut through the South Downs to funnel road traffic to the tunnel’s shuttle terminals.

These political decisions left Eurotunnel with a large bank debt and a preference for running its own shuttle services for lorries rather than providing paths for freight trains. An Anglo-French safety commission only allows a limited number of certified railway vehicles to run through the tunnel. The result of all of these constraints, and the withdrawal of UK-French government subsidies, is that the Channel Tunnel’s full potential to carry rail freight has never been realised, and that only a handful of freight trains work through the tunnel.

The total cost of yesterday’s fire in the Channel Tunnel will run into hundreds of millions of pounds. It’s ironic that the three fires that closed the Channel Tunnel (on 18 November 1996, 21 August 2006 and 11 September 2008) all took place in road vehicles, or more specifically the HGV lorries, whose carriage by the tunnel shuttle Mrs T had insisted upon. It’s also unfortunate that Eurostar, the high speed train operator between England and France that has been doing so well, will be taking a hit from a disaster on an operation – the Eurotunnel Shuttle – over which it has no control or influence.

PKP Cargo – new livery, new owner?

Friday, 2 May 2008

28.04.2008 – First Poland-Germany (Poznan-Seddin)
freight service hauled by TRAXX EU43 locomotive

PKP Cargo, part of the state-owned PKP Group, and Poland’s largest freight carrier, has a new logo. The logo is a derivative of the old logo, but with a cleaner, more modern appearance. When state-run industries start redesigning their logos and web pages it’s usually a good sign that privatisation is not far away. Sure enough, the Polish Sejm Infrastructure Committee is working flat out on a new Act to govern the privatisation of parts of the PKP railway empire. Our betting is that, sooner or later, the German state-owned railway company, Deutsche Bahn AG, will end up owning a controlling interest in PKP Cargo. PKP Cargo S.A. and Railion Deutschland AG have already signed a long-term cooperation agreement. Railon is owned by Deutsche Bahn AG. DB AG has also bought EWS, the UK’s largest rail freight carrier, so if the current difficulties regarding Channel Tunnel rail freight can be overcome, the prospect of moving some of the 1,000 Poland-UK HGV lorry loads onto rail becomes decidedly better.

Reflecting on Customer Service

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Eurostar trains at Waterloo International

Can’t say I’d rather take train from UK to Poland rather than plane – no matter how fast the train was (unless you’re talking maglev and 400mph/600kmph). Door-to-door, London to Warsaw is six hours. Even if a train could do it in twelve, I’d pass. Unless it was thruppence ha’penny return.

So commented W-wa Jeziorki blog editor, Mike Dembinski, on reading my recent Eurostar sees a 21% increase in passengers post. It made me reflect on how different people perceive the quality of goods or services.

For jet-setting Mike, hopping between one business meeting and another, time taken from A to B is the deciding factor. But for my friend Jozek – and hundreds of thousands of Poles like him – a decent through train service with a proper luggage van would be just the ticket. Jozek is having to spend tonight (it’s now Wednesday night) in a hotel on the German-Dutch border because his van has bust a half-axle. He drove out from the UK on Friday night with van and trailer to pick up the belongings of a couple that have sold up in Poland and are moving permanently to the UK.

Mike’s comment reminded me of the time I travelled from London to Warsaw by train. It was November 1994 and Eurostar had just launched its public service between London Waterloo International and Brussels or Paris. I had business meetings in Brussels and Munich and then a short project to complete in Warsaw. Travelling by train – rather than flying and booking hotels – was actually a good solution to my travel and accommodation needs.

I left Waterloo on the morning service. A friend that I hadn’t seen for ages was also travelling, in his case just for fun, and we took photographs of each other posing self-consciously against the Eurostar train. We bumped rather than glided across the BR tracks until we reached the Channel Tunnel terminal. Here the train appreciably speeded up, though not as much as it might have done had the UK government not agreed to reduce the specification of the tunnel railway track as a cost cutting measure. Emerging into daylight at the French portal, the sudden burst of acceleration was phenomenal and soon we were flying along at 160 mph. All too soon, we arrived at our stop at Lille and from here the Eurostar bumped its way slowly over orthodox railway tracks till we reached our destination at Brussels. Passport control at the Belgian end was a handful of officials sitting behind folding card tables who just waved us through.

My Brussels meeting over, and replete with supper from one of the excellent Brussels restaurants, I boarded the night sleeper from Brussels to Munich. This was not a good experience. The German sleeping car attendant directed me to the wrong carriage, and then when I finally found my sleeping compartment and dragged my heavy luggage into it, I discovered that there was no water to freshen up. The attendant seemed to find my difficulties amusing. Here was one fellow who had not forgiven the Poles and Brits, for thrashing the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

I arrived in Munich, hot, sweaty and cross. I did not endear myself to my German hosts by informing them that the quality of customer service on their night sleeper services was crap, and that before I could start the meeting I needed a bathroom and a good wash. The evening journey from Munich to Hannover was a complete contrast. The ICE train (the German equivalent of the French TGV) was clean and efficient. The Swedish style smoked fish platter was delicious. Why was I then not completely satisfied? What was the missing ingredient?

I waited at Hannover station for the Brussels-Moscow train which was to take me to Warsaw. The Polish WARS sleeper carriages looked dowdy and unkept. My expectations were low. I found my compartment. The attendant poked his head round the door, with a broad grin on his face. “Would you like a hot towel sir? Can I get you a snack or a beer?” Suddenly I knew that the rest of the journey would be OK. I was home!

Eurostar sees 21% increase in passengers

Monday, 14 April 2008

Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP

The day when we can take a cheap and fast train from England to Poland took another small step in the right direction today as Eurostar announced that its passenger carryings had increased by 21% since the move of its London terminal from Waterloo to St Pancras. The Guardian reported that,

Eurostar said 2.17 million customers travelled between London, Paris and Brussels in the first three months of the year, an increase of more than 21.3% on the same period in 2007.

Nick Mercer, Eurostar’s commercial director, said the service was benefiting from shorter journey times thanks to the high-speed link and more customers from around Britain due to the location of St Pancras, which is better connected to the UK rail network than the train operator’s former base in Waterloo.

“The passenger increase is coming from shorter journey times, better punctuality and improved connectivity, particularly from the UK regions. We have seen a near doubling of passengers from places such as York and the east Midlands,” he said.

Eurostar is embarking on a joint marketing campaign with Virgin Trains, East Midlands Trains and National Express East Coast this summer and will tour stations in cities including Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham to advertise deals such as £77 for a return trip from Sheffield to Paris, via St Pancras.

Mercer said around half the growth in passenger numbers came from new customers based north of London, with the rest taken from rival ferry operators and airlines.

(Complete article here)

What a pity that plans to run through Eurostar services from Scotland and the Midlands were stifled at birth and while the rest of Europe is rapidly rolling out a network of plus 300 km/hr high speed lines, the UK’s Ministry of Transport is still twiddling its thumbs about building any such lines in the UK and planning to increase capacity at Heathrow Airport for more flights between London and the North.

A note for non-railway buffs. Sir Edward Watkin built a high speed railway from London to Manchester in 1899. The Great Central main line, also known as the London Extension of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway was opened in 1899, it was the last main line railway built in Britain until the first part of High Speed 1 opened in 2003. From the start it was intended to be part of a high speed line to France through the original Channel Tunnel. The line was closed in stages between 1966 and 1969 although much of the formation still remains intact, although with typical British short-sightedness, key sections of the line through towns such as Rugby and Nottingham have been sold to property developers.

A Ride on the Dark Track – Finale

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Dartford River Crossing, Tunnel and Bridge

Wojtek turned right, then second left, and we were out of the labyrinth. The sat-nav picked up our route, another 25 kilometres and we were back on the motorway. Now the struggle was to keep awake for as long as it took to get to Calais. (I took it as a matter of honour, and self-preservation, that I would try to keep Wojtek company and awake.) We nearly turned off the motorway one exit too early, but finally we were on the spur road to the car ferry terminal. The time was 4.30 am exactly 24 hours after we were at the start of our ‘by-pass route’ around the centre of Wroclaw.

We passed miles of rusty railway sidings. The unwillingness of SNCF to provide competitively priced stabling facilities for trans Europe freight trains is one of the reasons why so little rail freight passes through the channel tunnel. The other reason is the charging policy of Eurotunnel. Perhaps we should look at railfreight through the Channel Tunnel – or rather the lack of it – in a future post?

We arrived at the lorry check-in for the Dover ferry. Wojtek had planned a kip in the lorry holding area. He was out of luck, the next ferry sailed in less than an hour. By the time the French had checked our lorry for stowaways, the Brits had done the same, but much more thoroughly, and the Brits had checked our passports, there was less than 20 minutes to rest. Nethertheless we both slept.

On board the ferry we decided to try the driver’s restaurant. £4 bought a traditional English breakfast, but the standard was not as good as a traditional UK HGV drivers cafe. We snatched another quick nap and then we were rolling through the Dover ferry terminal – no security check this time – and onto the A2. We crossed under the River Thames at the Dartford crossing and soon the sat-nav was guiding us through the narrow streets of East London to our final destination. Wojtek had been on the road for 30 hours, of which a total of 6 hours had been spent resting.

My journey by lorry from Poland to England by lorry was quite an education, and I will return to some of the things that I learnt in future posts. Meanwhile there have been happenings in the Polish rail arena, particularly as regards the campaign to save the Krosniewice Railway. There have also been developments in Pyskowice and elsewhere. WATCH THIS SPACE !