by Oliver Ramsay Gray of Holiday in a Box
On 14 November 1994, the first scheduled Eurostar train pulled out of Waterloo International Station accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Eurostar made Waterloo the gateway to Europe and it aimed to link the UK to the continent like never before, allowing customers to go direct from the centre of London to the centre of Paris and beyond.
Today, with the Covid-19 pandemic and quarantine rules in place, the UK has almost completely sealed up its borders. We’re more cut off from France and the rest of Europe than at any point in living memory. But does this offer us an opportunity to reimagine how we travel in future again? In response to the current crisis, me and my two sisters have set up a company called Holiday in a Box based in Waterloo. We deliver everything you need for a holiday at home – food and activities – all packed up in a box and delivered to your door. Could this kind of business be the future of travel?
Over the next few minutes, we’ll look back at the history of dreams for a UK-French tunnel, how Waterloo became the gateway to Europe and what travelling in future might look like with companies like Holiday in a Box.
The Dream of a UK-French Tunnel
There had been dreams of a UK-French tunnel for nearly 200 years before construction started on the Channel Tunnel (I’m refusing to call it the ‘Chunnel’). The first serious attempt at building a tunnel came in 1802 when a French mining engineer drew up plans for a double-layer tunnel for horse-drawn stagecoaches, complete with an artificial island halfway across to change the horses at. The idea sparked interest and further plans were drawn up in subsequent years, although it was not until 1855 that the British and French governments came to an agreement over the tunnel, and only in 1880 that an attempt was actually made to build a tunnel. 2km was tunnelled before a press campaign over fears of compromising Britain’s national defences forced work to stop. Later objections would range from concern over the spread of rabies, to a 1930s anxiety that a tunnel would ‘make England a holiday resort for hordes of more or less undesirable people’.
The first serious attempt at designing a 'submarine tunnel'
A Beaumont-English boring machine - used in the early 1880s to dig 2km under the channel before construction was halted over fears of compromising Britain’s national defences
The Waterloo Terminus
Momentum for a channel tunnel picked up again after World War Two and after many more false starts, construction work on the tunnel finally began in 1987. However, it was far from certain that the channel tunnel rail link would terminate at Waterloo.
In the early 1970s, it was assumed that the London terminal would be at Victoria station, which had been the terminal for Boat Trains to Paris since 1929 (and later the terminal for the Night Ferry services). However, Westminster City Council opposed any further development of the station and there was little room for expansion anyway. British Rail then began to look at the tunnel as an opportunity to receive government investment to build the terminal on large undeveloped plots of land they owned in White City and upgrade the under-utilised West London line (Clapham Jnc.–Willesden Jnc.). This was firmly opposed by the Department of the Environment (DOE), which had transport within its purview during the early 1970s, because of the cost such a plan entailed when public finances were already stretched and because without a central London terminal, tunnel traffic would certainly be dampened. Meanwhile, to add to the confusion and division, the Greater London Council (what is effectively now the London Mayor) favoured Surrey Docks as a means of revitalising the area, creating jobs, and linking in with the nascent London Docklands redevelopment plans. But this was opposed by both British Rail and the DOE because of a lack of suitable existing infrastructure and the even greater investment required than at White City. This whole mess contributed to costs spiralling and work on the Channel Tunnel being cancelled entirely by the British in 1975.
When plans for a rail tunnel were drawn up again a decade later, Waterloo station was put forward as the solution to the London terminal conundrum. Railway passenger traffic had dropped to a 100-year low by the mid-1980s, meaning capacity had freed up at Waterloo, and it wouldn’t cost much to connect Waterloo to the old Boat Train track through Kent and down to the channel (particularly important during the economic turmoil of the mid-1980s). British Rail’s original plan for a terminal at White City lived on in the new plans though. From 1994 to 2007, while Waterloo was the Eurostar terminal, the North Pole depot up in White City, connected to Waterloo via the West London line, was used as the Eurostar depot.
The finished station was a striking design by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw – said to be an ‘asymmetric reinterpretation of 19th century trainsheds and glasshouses’ – and included some distinctive touches such as hanging fish.
Grimshaw's design for Waterloo International