High-speed rail is helping to keep Europe more connected than ever before, offering an economical and environmentally friendly option for both regional and international travel. When comparing travel in Europe with travel in the U.S., I often find myself a little envious of the relatively easy access that many Europeans have to such a diverse wealth of fantastic destinations.
I was recently lucky enough, however, to redeem my reward miles and hop across the Pond to London for a week of iconic sights, great food, exhilarating “football,” and some of the world’s best museums and theatre. There’s plenty to do in London, and I would have been more than happy to spend the entire trip there, but thanks to the wonders of modern transportation I also had the opportunity to expand my vacation beyond England.
After booking the trip, we realized that we could quite easily take a train from London to Paris at a fraction of the cost, time, and hassle it would take to fly. Since we had some extra time, we figured why not get a taste of France as well? So early one typically damp, chilly morning, we ambled over to St Pancras station, only a few blocks away from where we were staying in London, and hopped on a Eurostar train to Paris. Just a few hours later, we were disembarking at the Gare du Nord with plenty of time to spare before a delicious lunch at a charming French bistro and a sunlit stroll along the Seine.
The short journey was pretty remarkable to me—speeding along lush green countryside at 186 mph, zipping past towering windfarms, picturesque villages, and quaint little farms and wineries. The closest experience I’d had to it before was the Acela Express between New York and Boston which, despite being the only high-speed rail service currently in the U.S., doesn’t come close to the speed and scenery of a trip on the Eurostar.
The most incredible aspect of the journey for me, though, was the tunnel between the UK and France. I’ve taken every tunnel in and out of Manhattan countless times, and I always find it pretty amazing that we have these manmade tunnels beneath our rivers, some built well over a century ago. But tunnels beneath the relatively narrow Hudson and East Rivers are one thing. The Channel Tunnel is 31.4 miles long—second only to the Seikan Tunnel in Japan as the world’s longest rail tunnel—and in fact has the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world at 23.5 miles. It is truly a remarkable feat of engineering.
The idea to build a tunnel between the two countries actually dates all the way back to 1802, when French engineer Albert Mathieu first proposed an underground highway for horse-drawn carriages. Serious plans for an international link, however, did not begin until the 1980s, and it was in 1986 that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand signed the Treaty of Canterbury providing for the undersea connection. Construction began two years after that, and at the time it was the most expensive construction project ever proposed. At its peak, it employed 13,000 people, and the final cost for the six-year project came in at ₤4.65 billion (more than ₤12 billion, or $17 billion, today). The completed tunnel, linking Folkestone, Kent to Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais was finally opened by President Mitterrand and Queen Elizabeth II on May 6, 1994, with the first freight and passenger trains commencing operation later that year. In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Channel Tunnel one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Today, Eurostar operates more than a dozen state-of-the-art electric trains directly between London and Paris, utilizing the “Chunnel” and modern high-speed rail networks to complete the journey in less than 2.5 hours. There are also a number of direct trains between London and Brussels, taking about 2 hours, and Eurostar plans to launch direct service to Amsterdam in 2017. High-speed electric rail is becoming an ever more popular and efficient mode of both regional and international transportation in Europe, and thanks to the Channel Tunnel, the UK has been able to participate in this evolution as well. In addition to being a safe, easy, affordable way to travel, trains can be significantly more eco-friendly than flying. A Eurostar train from London to Paris emits 91% less CO2 per passenger than a corresponding flight between the cities.
I hope to see the U.S. follow Europe’s lead in expanding our own high-speed rail networks. While there are already a number of plans to do so across the country, including the current California High-Speed Rail project between Los Angeles to San Francisco, most remain in their early stages and will take decades and multitudes of resources to complete. Nonetheless, as our population continues to swell we will need safe, affordable, and efficient modes of transportation to keep our communities connected and support our regional economies. High-speed rail has a very important role to play in that future.