Papers no longer have any noticeable expertise when it comes to the railways, and nor do they with air travel, either. Any reports of incidents involving aircraft inevitably lift the AAIB analysis, with the hope that the resulting summary is more or less correct. And any reporting of rail services and incidents relies on press releases and guesswork. This, on occasion, results in mistakes.
Look, no Mail hacks to be seen
And in the serious mistakes category is the Mail’s reporting of a new service to be operated through the Channel Tunnel by German state operator DB. The proposed service – from London to Brussels and then onward to Amsterdam and Frankfurt – was covered by Zelo Street back in October 2010. But somehow, the Mail appears to have lost its helpful DB leaflet from the time.
Hence the headline “Blitz-speed: Germans finally get the chance to cross the Channel as 200mph Berlin to London service is given the green light”, announcing a service which will not be serving Berlin. Having dug themselves a hole, the Mail hacks go for broke with “Berlin to London rail service will take only four and a half hours”. It sodding well won’t.
Mail hacks miss very obvious numbers shock
But they just keep digging: “It will get travellers from Berlin to London in four and a half hours – and vice versa”. Christ on a bike, read your own copy: “Deutsche Bahn officials said the journey time from Cologne to London would be under four hours - less than the time it takes to get to Berlin, around four and a half hours: ‘Passengers can choose which capital they prefer - yours or ours’ said one DB official”.
So how long will that take from London to Berlin? Four hours to Cologne, then a change of train, then another four and a half hours. So around nine hours, or twice the figure the clueless hacks are claiming. And what the Mail chooses not to tell its readers – apart from the fact that the service may not start until 2016, three years later than first planned – is that there is another potential time penalty.
That is because, unlike many other EU member states, the UK has not signed the Schengen agreement, and the UK Border Agency therefore refuses to do passport and immigration checks on the move (as has been done across mainland Europe for decades). So there have to be lengthy check-in allowances added before getting on board. This makes the services potentially less attractive to passengers.
So the new services will, like Eurostar at present, be operated rather like a ground level airline rather than a train service. The Railway Gazette has covered this not insignificant aspect in its report. The Mail, of course, has a problem with mentioning anything to do with borders, in case it were to be seen to appear soft on all those people talking foreign.
We need a grown-up approach to border controls on trains. Speak up, Mail people.
I think it is a bit silly to blame a nine-hour journey time entirely on border controls to the UK. A more obvious culprit is the lack of high-speed rail links most of the way between western Germany and Berlin. Germany does have the excuse that it was two separate countries not so long ago, but that's the way it is for now, and nothing that happens with UK border control will change that.
The time penalty for border control plus security on Eurostar services is currently 30 minutes (10 for Business Premier). That's not really a big deal. We do need to start thinking about how to handle journeys beyond Paris and Brussels, but this current attitude of people triumphantly proclaiming it's the beginning of the end of the hated UK border controls is not helpful at all.
I personally think the easiest solution is to forget about passport controls in Paris, Lille and Brussels and instead do the whole lot in London, for both arrivals and departures. They did this for a while during the row over the Lille loophole and it's doable. If people try to turn this into a political point-scoring exercise over the Schengen area, that will achieve nothing except possibly delaying the service further.
Since the original 2010 publicity stunt things have changed, and not for the better. Whilst waiting for the train licences DB have been cracking on with the first of the new security control facilities at the German stations. And that's where it all starts to go wrong. A couple of months ago the UK government issued a new policy on border controls for international trains. The foreign based staff at Paris, Lille and Brussels will not be extended elsewhere - such as the shiny new booths in Germany. Nor will onboard checks be permitted. And St Pancras was rebuilt without thought that this may happen so arrivals facilities are a bit thin. The current summer Saturdays only Eurostar service from Aix en Provence is now required to stop at Lille for over an hour so that all the passengers can get off and file through the UKBA point on the station. It is now easier to cross from Finland to Russia by train.
DB say the new service will not start until 2016 at the earliest, or in other words, until we've had the next general election and they've had time to consider it.
On top of this, Eurostar are having second thoughts about their plans for an Amsterdam- London service. They already had an issue with high track access costs in the Netherlands but the idea of tonking down those expensive tracks only to come to a grinding halt in Brussels for an hour makes it all a bit pointless.
He's not blaming it entirely on border controls, it is cited as one of several aspects.
Passport controls should be done on the train, the way it was done on mainland Europe pre-Schengen. That way, there would be no need for check-in: you could just walk onto the platform and hop on the train like on any other train service. It would also allow cross-channel passenger trains to carry domestic passengers in the UK, enabling them to better serve intermediate stations in Kent and thus have a proper inter-regional train service [That would, of course, also anger the Daily Fail.], as well as run services from points north and west of London.
The check-in is a right royal pain, no matter how short it is. I don't care if it's only 30 mins. When I was waiting in the departure area for a train from Brussels to London recently, it felt almost like waiting for a flight.
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