Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/9 posted by hidden europe on

Just think how good it would be if you could board a train in Milan and wake up next morning in Manchester. Forty years ago this spring, civil servants in London and European rail planners were sketching out the first tentative ideas for just such a train service. The prevailing pieties in Britain about all things European were very different in those days. The UK had opted into the European project at the start of 1973, and the following October the Westminster Parliament approved a White Paper that gave the green light to the Channel Tunnel. So in the spring and summer of 1973, the pro-tunnel lobby was busy sketching out what might be a feasible pattern of passenger rail services through the tunnel.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Just think how good it would be if you could board a train in Milan and wake up next morning in Manchester. Forty years ago this spring, civil servants in London and European rail planners were sketching out the first tentative ideas for just such a train service.

The prevailing pieties in Britain about all things European were very different in those days. The UK had opted into the European project at the start of 1973, and the following October the Westminster Parliament approved a White Paper that gave the green light to the Channel Tunnel. Readers with an interest in history will recall that just two years later the scheme was abandoned, only to be revived in 1984.

So in the spring and summer of 1973, the pro-tunnel lobby was busy sketching out what might be a feasible pattern of passenger rail services through the tunnel. The timetables that were published were no more than illustrative, designed to give Parliament and public an idea of what might be possible. You can see the 1973 draft timetable on the Europe by Rail website.

The British Rail Board suggested that eight daytime trains would suffice to meet demand on the London to Paris route, complemented by one overnight service between the two capitals. The 1973 draft timetable envisaged four premium daytime services in each direction running under the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) brand. The idea of Eurostar was still a long way off, yet the TEE element anticipated some aspects of Eurostar's business premier product. The TEE services would speed non-stop from London to Paris in 3hrs 40mins, conveying only first-class passengers with full meal service at every seat.

The other four daytime trains in the draft schedules would run at a more relaxed pace, taking thirty minutes longer than the TEE services. These slower trains would carry both first and second class passengers and included an intermediate stop at Saltwood (just near the Kent portal to the tunnel). On one of those slower trains, the 5pm departure from London, dinner would be available in a restaurant car and that train would also convey through sleeping cars and couchettes for the French Riviera (presumably transferred at Paris Nord onto the Flandre-Riviera overnight service).

In 1973, planners envisaged that Victoria station in London would serve as the terminal for Channel Tunnel rail services. This was no surprise. Victoria had long styled itself 'Gateway to the Continent' and had hosted the luxury daytime Golden Arrow service (which had ironically been axed in October 1972). But in 1973 the Night Ferry was still going strong, leaving Victoria each evening with sleeping cars to Paris and Brussels (with these carriages conveyed on a ferry from Dover to Dunkerque).

A separate 1973 study by the British Rail Board looked at possible patterns of night train services from England to the continent. It suggested an initial offering of comfortable overnight sleepers from northern England, the Midlands and London to over a dozen cities across Europe. The wish list of destinations makes interesting reading: Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Hamburg, Milan, Salzburg, Toulouse. Presumably with an eye on the winter sports market, Chur and Interlaken also featured on the map.

When in 1984 the plans for a rail link under the Channel were resuscitated, the idea of direct night trains from Britain to the continent still commanded much support. Nightstar rolling stock was built to complement the daytime Eurostar services. In the end, Nightstar never entered service and the sleeping cars were sold to Canada, leaving Eurostar's seasonal overnight services from London to the French Alps offering just regular seated accommodation.

Britain's sole international night sleeper train disappeared from the timetables long before the Channel Tunnel opened. The Night Ferry ran for the last time on 31 October 1980.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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You can read more about the history of Britain's only international night sleeper service in the book 'Night Ferry' by George Behrend and Gary Buchanan, first published by Jersey Artists in 1985 and reprinted in 2005. Although now sadly out of print, the book is available in many libraries.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.