Channel train to use crossing lost in time: Manual wooden gates will remain part of the high-tech route to France. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
THE BELL sounded in Bert Frolley's little hut by the level crossing at Willesborough near Ashford, Kent. He put down the toast he had just cooked on his Baby Belling and trudged off to pull shut two gates, each topped by a burning kerosene lamp.

It is a scene that can have changed little since the railway was built in the 19th century - but the train that he let through was one of the new high-tech Eurostar trains that will soon take passengers between London and Paris in three hours. When services start late this summer, Mr Frolley's primitive crossing will be the only one on the line between the two capitals.

Next to it British Rail has put up a sign boasting of 'Major work in progress: total track renewal Ashford-Sandling'. Clearly, the level crossing has been forgotten.

Mr Frolley, a genial old railwayman who has done the job at Willesborough for nearly 20 years, explains that BR cannot have an automatic gate because the crossing is too near Ashford station which means the device to trigger closure would have to be on the wrong side of the station. So Mr Frolley and his two colleagues who between them keep the crossing operating 24 hours a day wait in their little warm hut. When a bell is rung from the nearby signal box, which can be as often as 10 times an hour at peak times, he pushes a button and then has about a minute to shut the gates or else the train will be delayed by a red signal. He pulls a lever to lock them which can only be released from the signal box when the trains are past. He then pushes the gates open.

It is only the optimists and outsiders who keep their engines running as the canny locals know they are in for a long wait with two or more trains going past most times. 'When the tunnel opens, I reckon these gates will be closed nearly all the time', Mr Frolley says, chuckling. 'BR tried to close the crossing but the local council fought it because it's a long way round. They thought about a bridge, too, but they didn't reckon it would be possible.' He also laughs about the time they tried to take a lorry carrying an old locomotive across the tracks and it got stuck half way. 'Lucky I wasn't on duty that day or I would have got sacked. It closed both the line and the road for four hours.'

A spokesman for European Passenger Services, the BR subsidiary which will operate the Eurostar trains, said: 'There is no danger with this crossing.'

BR is looking at alternatives to the crossing but a previous attempt to close it failed and a spokesman admitted that it was likely to remain for several years.

The tunnel is due to open to its first paying traffic in two months when freight trains start operating between Folkestone and Calais. Today Eurotunnel will announce its passenger prices.

The Eurostar trains will be limited to 60mph past Mr Frolley's gates before speeding up as they reach the tunnel and reaching 186mph in France. Indeed, they will probably be going slow enough for Mr Frolley to give them a cheery wave.

(Photographs omitted)