Stephen Pollard: I'm cured of my insane devotion to Eurostar

Even on the rare occasions when the air conditioning is working properly, it is never used properly
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The Independent Online

Benjamin Franklin defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. Clearly, dear reader, I am insane.

For two years I have taken the Eurostar to Brussels and for two years I have had exactly the same experience: a service that does not even begin to do what it should, in almost every respect. And yet for those same two years I have carried on in exactly the same way, taking the same train out and the same train back, as if somehow things will improve.

D:Ream, you were so wrong: things do not actually get better. They can, and do, get worse.

There is something so wonderful about the idea of the Eurostar - popping on a train in Waterloo and popping off in Europe - that since the service began in 1994 there has been enormous goodwill towards it. In theory it's wonderful: scenery, environmental brownie points, none of the hassle of airports and a general sense of calm compared with flying.

But there is one small problem. The service is, to use the technical term, crap.

In the past couple of years, since I have been working in Brussels, I have taken more than 30 return trips. My survey is not scientific, but it is totally representative. Fewer than half a dozen of those 60-plus journeys arrived remotely on time. Most arrived at least half an hour late. I have had more than my share of one-hour delays, and many much longer.

And still I carried on with it, my support for the theory of the Eurostar still outweighing my rage at the actual practice. I told you I was insane.

Last month the Eurostar broke the UK train speed record, travelling at 208mph on the first section of the new Channel Tunnel rail link in Kent, which opens next month. Journey times, we are told, will now fall from three hours to two hours and 25 minutes between London and Paris, while my London-Brussels service will take two hours and 20 minutes, 20 minutes less than at the moment.

Eurostar claims that this is so wonderful it will destroy air travel to Paris and Brussels. Hmmm. I don't suggest that Eurostar is lying, merely that - let's put it this way - their timetable is economical with the truth. The truth being, of course, that the timetable bears as much relation to reality as my bet that Spurs will win the league. I want it to be true. I will it to be true. But I know that it's nonsense.

The delays, however, are almost the least of it. (And, despite the myth, they rarely take place on the British side.) If the rest of the service was not reminiscent of the now defunct Belgian airline Sabena (which used to be thought an acronym for Such A Bloody Experience Never Again), it might be bearable. But the old British Rail on a bad day almost always did better than the Eurostar. Anyone who has visited the Waterloo terminal knows what I mean - dowdy, tatty, smelly, and lacking basic clean amenities. And if you think that's bad, try the terminals at Gare Midi in Brussels, or Gare du Nord in Paris. Unspeakable.

I am fortunate to be able to travel business class. There is one advantage: space. The business carriages - which look as though they haven't been cleaned since coming into operation - are invariably half full, at best. I have, many times, been the sole passenger in my carriage. Hardly surprising, given that the return fare is - look away if you have a weak heart - £405. And what do you get for that? As I say, space. And that's it.

The lounges have been refurbished with Philippe Stark chairs, which might look good, but are in fact painfully impractical for anyone whose spine is not a slinky; they also have tables attached at an angle that make working impossible. Then there's the food. Inedible. I fly a fair bit, and I have not had one economy-class meal that was not infinitely preferable to the dross served up in Eurostar business class. My habit was to wander down to the economy class buffet and buy a sandwich.

And for the pièce de résistance: even on the rare occasions when the air conditioning was working properly, it was never used properly. It is impossible not to leave the train without a sweat.

I put up with this for two years.But earlier this month, I realised I wasn't merely insane, I was Peter Finch (in the movie Network); I was mad as hell, and I wasn't going to take it any more. So I tried something new - I went to City Airport, and flew the budget airline VLM.

Joy! Quick check in, clean departure lounge, 50-minute flight, no hassle (cost: £60). I was in my Brussels flat less than three hours after shutting my London door. I have discovered the journey of the future. And it doesn't involve the Eurostar.

stephenipollard@hotmail.com

Stephen Pollard is a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels-based think tank

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