The trouble is that Eurotunnel has to rely on one or two pretty unreliable partners to make Sir Alastair's dreams come true. Eurostar, for one. Trains running regularly through the tunnel every hour would help its debt repayments quite a lot. But who ever heard of trains running on time? In this country, anyway.
Two days after Sir Alastair announced those massive losses, I had cause to travel to Paris, via Eurostar, accompanied by my wife and two friends, Tim and Anne. Our objective was to have lunch at the Allard on the Left Bank, to celebrate our respective wives' birthdays, and then back in time for supper in front of the telly.
Well, that was our objective. The result was far less satisfying. We boarded Eurostar at Waterloo at 7am - no problem leaving on time; spot on. But then a S-L-O-W journey through the outer reaches of London and the hop fields of Kent, followed by ... a grinding halt. Twenty minutes later a voice came over the PA (with a charming Gallic accent) apologising for the delay, but "zer were serious troubles with ze power. Zer waz none."
We sat, grim-faced, locked in a sort of space capsule, with the air- conditioning off. From time to time further mentions of "ze power" - or lack of it - wafted over the tannoy, but now there was a distinct air of defeatism entering our conductor's voice. When free water was distributed to assuage our presumed raging thirsts, we began to wonder if we might be classed as refugees by the United Nations.
My friend Tim decided to tough it out. Edging up the narrow gangways to the front of the train, he bearded the bearded conductor in his den: "Why can't we go back to Ashford?" he bellowed - convinced that our conductor, being a foreigner, needed a little aural help - "and we can catch an ordinary train back to London." Our Gallic conductor was nonplussed by this apparent wisdom. He gabbled furiously into his walkie-talkie, tuned into some off- stage controller at Waterloo station: "Non, non," he responded, "securit, securit! Pas de personne descend et pas de personne ascend."
My friend decided to pull rank - well, my rank, anyway. "Mon ami is in Parliament," he shouted, waving my Rt Hon Lord Rix passport. "He has friends in the Government."
"We have a member of ze British cabinet here," screamed our wild-eyed conductor into his walkie-talkie. "Yeah, yeah," came the response, "pull the other one." "Pull what one?" responded our conductor, thinking - I suppose - of the communication cord. My friend tried a new tack. "Lord Rix has a heart condition," he bawled (I have, but it wasn't actually causing any problems at the time)."He cannot stand the strain any longer and must leave the train immediately."
Our conductor was not a Frenchman for nothing. Here he was, battling it out in perfidious Albion and surrounded by the enemy. "If he is unwell," he replied, "a doctor must be called to certify him."
Defeated, we retreated to our grim-faced wives and awaited the onward journey, now three hours behind schedule. More life-saving water was distributed - then it was through the tunnel, and on to Lille, where we were transferred to another capsule returning from Brussels to London. A free meal, grabbed out of yesterday's leftovers from the local deli, I imagine, a glass of warm champagne, and once more through the tunnel. Then it halted again, nearer Folkestone than Ashford this time, but memories of the morning's incarceration came flooding back as whey-faced returnees exchanged anxious glances. Then we saw it - ze cause of all ze trouble. Shunted into a siding by some good old-fashioned diesel stood the very Eurostar that had lost its electrical connecting rod among some overhead cables and blown the whole caboodle. It looked a sorry sight. As if to pay our respects, we sat there another quarter of an hour before we were off - to be deposited back at Waterloo station eight hours after our departure, with strict instructions that we could apply for a one-way ticket to Paris before the summer rush.
Summer rush? Poor Sir Alastair. He's relying on that, isn't he? Well, jolly good luck to him, but I think he'll have to overcome a few problems with his partners first. Vehicles on fire, puddles on the tunnel floor, trains without ze power. As for us - we shall always remember the last time we didn't see Paris. The trouble is - so will several hundred others.Reuse content