Posted by: Hackney Tours | January 8, 2010

Javelin’s edge blunted by sceptics and slip-up

Life at the sharp end.

Chaos in Kent, but all quiet on Southeastern's Javelin at St Pancras.

I first took the Eurostar from London to Paris in the late 90s. An hour or so after departure, I asked the guard about the engineering works that meant we were reduced to a tedious trundle through Kent commuter stations en route to the Channel Tunnel. Knowing the potential of these tri-voltage trains, this seemed to be the equivalent of test-driving a Ferrari in a pub car park.

“Oh, it always goes this speed,” was the cheery reply from the guard, as we continued our slow progress through the Garden of England. If you can remember the planets blurring outside the cockpit window when a spaceship accelerated to ”light speed” in Star Wars, this was the sensation I experienced in milder form when we eventually switched to SNCF track at Calais. The flat fields of the Pas du Nord lost their resolution as the driver was finally at liberty to throw that magical throttle lever forward.

Things have improved on the UK side, thanks to High Speed One (HS1), the fast track between London and the Channel Tunnel. Central Paris is now 2h 15m from a rejuvenated Kings Cross. But I wasn’t expecting too much when I took Southeastern’s high speed Javelin service to Dover during Christmas Week. The cold snap was causing chaos; it was just after the Eurostar Christmas debacle when two French guests at our house had endured an overnight ordeal under La Manche.

During the 20 minutes or so that it takes to traverse the ‘Chunnel’, I find it best not to ponder the weight of water over one’s head in this engineering marvel. Trapped there on trains all night, without power in some cases, passengers became hysterical. With a metaphorical Gallic shrug, and displaying admirable sang-froid, our guests had tucked into their beer and made the best of it.

But all was quiet when I arrived upstairs at the Southeastern platforms in St Pancras. The sleek class 395 electric unit that waited was capable of 140mph, though according to this Evening Standard article they will cost consumers significantly more while delivering minimal benefits.

But as the virtually empty train pulled out of St Pancras International, the acceleration pushed me back into my seat and – despite our scheduled Stratford stop – after only 16 minutes we were admiring the spectacular Queen Elizabeth II road bridge as we crossed the Thames at Dartford.

Sat across from me, a man on a mobile phone recounted his own trial by train (that same day, on a different route, but in the same area) as he explained to his significant other why he wouldn’t be home for some time; and why he might need to be picked up from a neighbouring town.

He had attempted the same coping strategy on the Javelin as our French guests on the Eurostar, but the lack of either buffet car or trolley meant no consolation in beer. This seemed to be the worst aspect of his day, though perhaps it was just salt in the wound.

Javelin appeared to be living up to its name. My fellow passenger had briefed his partner and resigned himself to a teetotal transit. With the smell of new plastic in our nostrils, we sped through the night on the new track that makes this high speed running possible. Alas, appearances can be deceptive.

The ‘permanent way’, as it’s called, played its part; a combination of continuously-welded rail that spells the end of that clickety-clack signature sound, and sophisticated signalling systems that keep large 140mph objects apart. But our train developed a fault and we lost 20 minutes waiting in the Ashford area.

Yet again this winter, the words ‘travel’ and ‘chaos’ find themselves sharing headline space in British newspapers. Granted, Ukrainian trains have experienced difficulties this week, but they have much colder temperatures to contend with.

Swiss trains seem to ignore snow; and while HS1’s eventual arrival merits praise, Adam Ant was still topping the charts here with songs like Prince Charming when France’s TGV was already topping 200mph (1981). Ugly systems not ugly sisters are the problem for the British travelling public. A happy ending to this enduring winter tale – of transport woe – seems a long way off.


  1. I really liked the photo, the train looks really powerful

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