Woe Is Kent

In his weekly newsletter for The Independent, Simon Calder laments Brexit’s contribution to the state of travel in England:

Ashford International station in south-east Kent has a problem. It is not international, unless you count the Eurostar trains that whizz past at 186mph. The same applies to Ebbsfleet International in north-west Kent. 

Both stations have cavernous halls for international passengers en route to Paris and Brussels. But the Channel Tunnel train operator closed both stations at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though travel demand has returned, only the London St Pancras hub remains open. The Transport Select Committee wanted to know why such valuable infrastructure has been mothballed, reducing the travel horizons of the good people of Kent. So the chair, Tory MP Huw Merriman, asked Eurostar’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, to explain.

In his two-page reply, Mr Damas did not hold back on explaining the forces ranged against the train firm. Perhaps the fact that today is his last day in the job before retirement helped his pen flow more freely. While financial pressures and engineering issues have contributed to Eurostar’s woes, the main problem is Brexit. The British insisted on becoming “third country nationals” after leaving the EU. That means border officials must carry out extra passport checks. “The stamping of British passports by Continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times,” he wrote. “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour versus 2,200 in 2019.”

 Cutting capacity by 30 per cent and pushing up fares, he wrote, may not look the greatest business strategy, but it has stifled demand and prevented St Pancras becoming entangled in absurdly long queues as Dover was earlier this year. Opening the Kent stations would spread resources even more thinly and add demand that cannot be met. So they will remain disconnected from Europe until at least 2025. “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.”

Transport expands the sphere of life; Brexit has shrunk it. And the new government has also shrunk your pounds. Having bought an expensive Eurostar ticket, your problems are only just beginning. Last Monday morning, as sterling plunged to its lowest value ever against the dollar, the bureau de change at St Pancras was charging almost £109 to obtain €100, valuing the pound at less than 92 euro cents.

 

 

Book Excerpt: Trans-Siberian Railrway

A chapter about travel along the Trans-Siberian railway, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:

If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.

The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome.  The boys in front  argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf  and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.

In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.

As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station.  Six litres of water is heavy.

Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.

•••••

Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.

The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.

Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: “If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation.” And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.

•••••

Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.

Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.

During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.

In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons. 

In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”

E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.

Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals.

If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.

The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.

Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.

The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.

Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.

The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.

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This Is for Non-Australians

Following a Norwegian programming idea, the SBS network in Australia recently aired a three-hour program mostly shot out the window on a train, the Ghan, which makes a regular three-day journey between Darwin and Adelaide. Response was sufficient for SBS to schedule a longer, seventeen-hour version of the same.

On the off chance that you are not reading this in Australia, and thus are unable to watch the TV version, here are some photos from the Ghan. And here is a link to my trip report at the time, posted just after we’d finished the 51 hour and ten minute journey.

Our journey began in Darwin, southbound.

The Ghan

Morning coffee in the lounge

Outside Darwin it looks like this.

First excursion stop, the Katherine Gorge

Way out in the middle of the outback

Wise guy at Lice Springs.

Somewhere out there, this happens.

And eventually as Adelaide draws closer, the countryside turns green.

Click ’em to enlarge them, and see photos from across Australia in the Australia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.