PsychoGeography #36: A case of tunnel vision?

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The Independent Online

I've always been a big fan of the Eurostar train service to Paris and the Channel Tunnel.

I've always been a big fan of the Eurostar train service to Paris and the Channel Tunnel. I find it difficult in my fuddled mind to adequately separate the two of them, but talking to a flak at the train company I was severely disabused as to their indivisibility. I called up to commiserate about how they weren't doing too well, which seemed ridiculous to me given that taking the train from Waterloo to the Gare du Nord is about 87,000,000 times more enjoyable than flying from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle. The flak soon set me straight: "You're thinking about Eurotunnel - we're a separate company. They may be loaded with debt, but our profits were up 20 per cent last year. They've only their own commercial strategy to blame; they staked everything on their car and truck shuttle, but with our services direct to Avignon and Euro Disney we're going from strength to strength. We've even got Philippe Starck coming in to do a complete redesign of our livery."

This smacked of Euroschadenfreude to me, and besides, surely if the tunnel were to go out of business the train service would be just a little less exigent? I mean, where would one go in the Philippe Starck, high-speed designer locos? Sevenoaks? Didcot Parkway? And by the same token, without the trains going through it, wouldn't the tunnel be just a tad de trop?

Actually, the Tunnel has every reason to feel more stand-alone than the train, because the truth is that all those enraged Little Englanders who fulminated against the engineering feat back in the 1980s were right. Whatever the issues surrounding European unity at the political, social and cultural level, at the geographic one unification has become a bald fact: there is continuous dry land between the Urals and Widnes, end of story. In the Faroe Islands, where each separate land mass has long been linked to the next via undersea car tunnels, the locals have ceased to refer to individual islands at all, and speak instead - quite naturally - of Faroe, the one and indivisible.

I digress because the real reason I feel such fondness for Eurostar is nothing to do with the fact that you can now get from Peckham to the Pont Neuf faster than you can say "Bonjour Jean, avez-vous une voiture nouvelle?", but everything to do with their aforementioned livery. It was during my inaugural voyage on the Eurostar that I had one of the key epiphanies of my life. I had taken my place in a quite reasonably appointed carriage, with plush upholstered seats and half-mushroom reading lamps, when a Euroguard popped up. He examined my ticket and informed me that I was in first class and should relocate immediately. I shuffled through a vestibule and into garish hell: in place of the Brighton Belle imagineered for Euro Disney I was confronted with a Belgian motorway service centre, replete with blue and yellow chevrons. This livery was ... well, it made me feel liverish.

Then it struck me: they must've designed first class first - suitably enough - and then, when the underlings finished, the Chief Liver came along and said, "Right! Now you lot, make second class look worse, but don't start from scratch, just uglify the existing blueprint!" As the train was pushed out of the undulating glass colon of the terminal, this epiphany gathered speed. I realised that all class divisions in travel were effected the same way: the reason people travel first class is not because it's that much better, but because second class is appreciably worse; and by the same token, the premier customer is paying for hoi polloi to be excluded, denigrated and rendered uncomfortable.

Ever since then I can't take the Eurostar - which I stress, is a favourite journey of mine - without this sense of social queasiness. The Tunnel is, by comparison, a mere fermata in the music of the landscape, but perhaps this is because it's only a second-class tunnel and the first-class one lies alongside, too lush and well-appointed for the company to utilise it in the current debt situation? I like to imagine this as something like the shaft Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland. Well lit, and lined with drawers and cabinets containing a selection of high-class produits regionaux, the intention of its builders was that as the trains went through they would slow and their windows would automatically open, so that passengers might help themselves to truffles and foie gras.

It's a comforting notion, and helps to alleviate the social insecurity of train travel. In fact, the only thing needed to complete my peace of mind would be the certain knowledge that Philippe Starck had also been immured.