Airlines & Airports
James Ruggia | March 04, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Friday Flashback: Eurostar, the Concorde and Neofuturism
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this July 24, 2015 column on the ceaselessly moving horizon that is the future of travel. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
In a week when NASA’s New Horizon Mission was sending us post cards of the mountains of Pluto, it may not be wise to pluck feathers from the big bird of aviation, but the most inspiring new horizons in the transit of actual people here on Earth has been borne by rails, not clouds, over the last 21 years.
On Nov. 14, 1994 the Eurostar made its inaugural journey from London to Paris through the Channel Tunnel, reshaping travel in Europe and giving the Continent its first futuristic transport symbol since the days of the Concorde, the sexy S.S.T. that made its last flight from JFK to London Heathrow on Oct. 24, 2003.
Practically speaking, the Concorde and the Eurostar were never competitors; one crossing the channel, the other the pond, but in one important way they were, because both aspired to be THE Hermes-winged harbinger of the future of travel. It only worked out that way for the Eurostar, which last year, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Channel Tunnel with a new 200 mph train as well as plans for four-hour direct services to Amsterdam from London coming in late 2016.
When the engineers of the Concorde went to their drawing boards they wanted to build the craft of the future. Sporting a delta wing design fit for a Parisian catwalk, the Concorde took to the skies in 1976 for British Airways and Air France. For 27 years the Concorde cruised at speeds reaching 1,350 mph, twice the speed of sound, and at altitudes approaching 60,000 feet. By chance, I flew it once when I missed my normal British Airways flight because my train to JFK was holed up in a tunnel due to a shooting at the West 4th Street subway station in New York City.
When I finally reached JFK, four hours late, a sympathetic BA check-in agent, said with a wink and smirk, “How about I put you on the Concorde?” And, “Well sure,” said I. “Thanks,” she said. “No really,” said I, “it’s my pleasure.” And indeed it was. The four-hour flight just flew by. We got up to 56,000 feet out past Nova Scotia and the guy in the next seat nudged me and said, “Look you can see the curvature of the Earth.” And there it a was, a very slight arc. I was John Glenn.
A little light mounted on the bulkhead let us all know when we hit Mach 2 and the flight attendants came around with little documents that verified that we were now all members of the Mach II Club. This memory, for me personally, is the final bit of romantic flotsam from an era that I associate with JFK (the man), Pan American Airlines, car fins, Aqualungs, jetpacks, the Jetsons, pillbox hats, Go Go Boots, the old Pan Am building (now Met Life) and the beautiful Eero Saarinen TWA Flight Center at JFK (the airport). Architects describe Saarinen’s beautiful building as being Neofuturistic, a name as good as any for all of the cultural sacraments listed above.
The Eurostar is the first big bit of transit futurism that doesn’t belong on that list, as it was born long after all that Kennedy optimism had become a milepost on the road to Watergate. Between April and June Eurostar carried 2.8 million passengers, the most ever in a three-month period, with second quarter sales up by 1.5 percent to £232 million.
The BBC attributes this success to more business traffic, a low euro and a boost from its new service to the south of France. Besides Paris and Brussels, the train now runs services to the Cote d’ Azur in summer and to the snowy alpine ski slopes near Lyon in winter. Just recently the British government sold its 40 percent stake in Eurostar for £585 million to the Canadian institutional investor Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and the U.K.'s Hermes Infrastructure.
The sale was a priority of Tory Prime Minister George Osborne who, like some politicians here, believes in privatizing as many services as possible. It’s worth noting, however, that the London to Amsterdam route that Eurostar will shortly be running will serve what is now Europe’s largest international airline market, flying more than 3 million passengers annually. That place at the top, now occupied by London-Amsterdam, was once occupied by London- Paris, until Eurostar came along to eat up almost all of that route's market share. Personally, I’d have held onto Eurostar.
Though it deserves much credit, the lynchpin of Eurostar’s success is government investment by Britain and France to dig the Chunnel in the first place. It’s rare to see politicians with short tenures make long term commitments that put other politicians, maybe even opponents, in front of future red ribbons with scissors in hand. The achievement overcame enormous obstacles including French-English bilateral cooperation, complex financial structuring and the less formidable business of carving through 31 miles of rock.
In short, any rail carrier would likely have prospered as the sole rail company licensed to operate exclusively through the Chunnel. There have been rumblings over the years of allowing a second competitor on the line, namely Deutsche Bahn, the German rail line. Deutsche Bahn has made it known that it would love to run a high-speed service between Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Köln and London. It’s worth noting that just yesterday, a powerful law firm that specializes in challenging monopolies in global courts announced plans to open an office in London and one of their biggest clients happens to be Deutsche Bahn. Smoking gun?
The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is home to the Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex. In its prime, the Intrepid suffered five kamikaze attacks in the decisive battles of the War in the Pacific. Docked on the West Side of Manhattan, a few blocks from the bright lights of Broadway, tourists today wander its flight deck looking at Harriers, Mig 17s, Phantoms and other fighter jets. They also find two former aviation champions there: the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the very same Concorde that holds the record for the fastest New York to London flight at 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.
The ground broken by the Space Shuttle is still producing new vistas. In 2011, Spaceport America officially opened just outside of Albuquerque with what looks like aviation’s most promising claim to retake that Neofuturist mantle. So far the FAA has issued licenses to four more spaceports around the country and there are dozens more operating around the world.
I remember reading somewhere that intercontinental flights in the future flying above the atmosphere could connect Albuquerque to Paris in four hours. It took four hours to go New York-London in 1976. Surely those engineers working for such companies as Virgin Galactic today sometimes remember the flight of that old gray bearded Concorde sitting on top of a flight deck in the Hudson. And last but not least, thanks aviation, for the mountains of Pluto, you’re making my world bigger every day.
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