Gravy train goes deluxe for MEPs' Strasbourg trips

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A gleaming new, high-speed train solely for MEPs launches today. The service, linking Brussels with the French city of Strasbourg, is being inaugurated by France in the hope of stamping out criticism of the "travelling circus" that sees the entire European Parliament, uproot to the capital of the Alsace region for one week a month at a cost of €200m (£158m) a year.

France, which holds the European Union presidency, argues the train will make the relocation cheaper and environment-friendlier as it will replace six costlier charter flights. A 2,500-strong army of staff, officials and interpreters makes the 280-mile trip each month, accompanied by 15 truckloads of paperwork, generating 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

But the new service risks giving new meaning to the term "gravy train" with critics likely to seize on it as the latest example of how taxpayers' money is being squandered amid ongoing scandals and revelations over MEPs' expenses.

The Thalys TGV train is luxurious compared to the ordinary Brussels-Strasbourg intercity and at €220 for a return ticket, it costs nearly twice as much. Passengers can recline in wide, comfortable seats and sample a selection of world wines and continental nibbles in the buffet car. MEPs can claim back the costs.

"It's not as if we are going to be force-fed champagne and fois gras during the trip," said Esther de Lange, a Dutch Conservative MEP. "A lot of us would have put a stop to this travelling business yesterday. But it's not [for] us to decide."

France has reportedly lobbied furiously to ensure that a petition signed by over one million Europeans calling for the Strasbourg seat to be scrapped does not succeed.

"It is a question that has disgraced the European Parliament for a long time, it gives hard-working politicians a ridiculous image," says Sweden's Europe minister, Cecilia Malmström. "It is not defensible for the magnificent Strasbourg building to be empty the rest of the 307 days a year."