Eurostar Launched From New London Hub

15th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

By JILL LAWLESS , LONDON — The first customers sipped bubbly at Europe's longest champagne bar and boarded high-speed trains to Paris and Brussels as London's St. Pancras station reopened Wednesday after a seven-year, $1.6 billion refurbishment.

By JILL LAWLESS

LONDON — The first customers sipped bubbly at Europe's longest champagne bar and boarded high-speed trains to Paris and Brussels as London's St. Pancras station reopened Wednesday after a seven-year, $1.6 billion refurbishment.

Two trains slipped out of the station just after 11 a.m., traveling to Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes and Brussels in 1 hour and 51 minutes — at least 20 minutes faster than previous trips.

The trains were largely unaffected by a French transport strike; Eurostar said it did not schedule any French drivers to work on Wednesday. The only hitch came when striking French rail workers blocked the line at Lille in northern France, delaying a London-bound train by 27 minutes.

Cross-channel Eurostar services moved from Waterloo station to St. Pancras after completion of Britain's stretch of a high-speed cross-Channel rail line.

Intended as a landmark to rival New York's Grand Central Terminal, St. Pancras is more than a railway station. Its reinvention as a chic international hub — with classy restaurants and upscale shops — is part of the transformation of a neighborhood long known for poverty and seediness.

"It's marvelous," said Graham Keech, a London academic traveling to Belgium. "When you think what it was like for the last 50 years, it's amazing."

The station opened in 1868, but a century later it was grubby and unloved. The Victorian Gothic style of George Gilbert Scott's turreted red-brick station frontage was out of fashion, and the structure was threatened with demolition.

It was saved after a campaign led by poet John Betjeman, a railway buff who praised the building as "that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset."

Betjeman won the battle but the building suffered years of neglect. The long-closed hotel sat empty, and the station became the increasingly scruffy end of the no-frills "Bedpan Line" from the commuter town of Bedford and for slow trains from central England.

Its rebirth as the home of 186 mph trains marks Britain's tardy entry into the age of high-speed rail travel. For years, Eurostar trains sped through France but rattled across England to Waterloo on aging tracks.

France, which has a national network of fast trains, completed its part of the Channel Tunnel link in 1993; the high-speed line to Brussels was finished in 1997.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who led Britain from 1979 to 1990, opposed spending public money on a high-speed rail link, and it was not until 1996 that the government approved its construction.

High-speed travel on Britain's domestic trains is still some way off. But St. Pancras is ready. The glass-enclosed train shed gleams, its roof soaring 100 feet above the platforms. The front portion of the structure is to reopen in 2009 as luxury lofts and a 5-star hotel.

A statue of Betjeman, in overcoat and trilby hat, stands gazing up at the roof and its 18,000 panes of glass. Nearby at the 300-foot-long champagne bar, travelers can quench their thirst for up to $50 a glass.

Not everyone was impressed.

"It's a mix of Gothic and modern — and the modern is champagne and shopping," said Koy Thomson of the London Cycling Campaign, who came to protest the lack of bicycle facilities at the station. "It's a terrible missed opportunity."

The opulence contrasts to the neighbourhood, where commuters rush past prostitutes and drug dealers on streets lined with fast-food restaurants, amusement arcades and cheap bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Over the last few years, the area around St. Pancras and King's Cross station next door has changed, spurred by construction of the cross-Channel rail line. Whole blocks have been razed. Sex shops and small businesses have closed. A Starbucks appeared, as did new apartment buildings promising "urban living at its best" behind iron gates.

"It's cl

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