In the middle of a vast featureless wilderness north of Stratford town centre there's a long glass box and a deep hole. The deep hole houses several parallel railway tracks, and is linked by tunnel to StPancras at one end and Europe at the other. And the glass box is Stratford International station, from which it'll one day be possible to take a train to Paris or Brussels, One day. But not yet. For the time being this continental gateway stands structurally complete but entirely empty, awaiting fitting out and its first passengers. It's going to be a long wait.
As part of London Open House, a few select interested parties and transport geeks were afforded access to Stratford International station for a rare look around the site. We were probably the only scheduled visitors this site will have for the next couple of years, and we didn't even get anywhere near the platforms. When Eurostar services commence on the High Speed Rail Link on 14 November, they'll speed straight through Stratford at umpteen miles per hour without stopping. Nobody wants to slow down for a miserable East End commuter halt just seven minutes out of St Pancras, not when they could be halfway to the Thames crossing instead.
The station's other main drawback is that there's currently no sensible way of accessing it by road. We got there in a rickety minibus via a lengthy detour round Clays Lane and along several dusty meandering tracks. The main dual carriageway passing the front of the station ends slap bang in the middle of the fenced-off Olympic Zone, so there's no admittance for taxis, cars or buses via this route. You can't walk to the station from anywhere either, not until they build a new footbridge over the platforms at the other Stratford station. There's absolutely nothing on the surrounding site for half a mile in any direction, apart from barren bulldozed scrubland, and it'll stay that way until the Stratford City development starts to cover the area with shops, offices and unaffordable housing. Even the DLR doesn't get this far until 2010. Come back then and Eurostar might have bothered to add Stratford International to their timetables. But don't hold your breath.
Our tour group was ushered inside the empty entrance hall to view the grand spaces in which international travel will eventually commence. It's very long, with one complete wall of glass, and you'll be glad to know that the clocks and toilets are already fully functional. We swept easily through the non-existent ticket barriers and passport control before emerging into another long gallery, this time for arrivals and departures. One day this space will be full of Starbucks and Tie Racks, but for now it's just as vacant as the rest of the building. Messages flash up on the departure board ("Welcome to Stratford International") ("No further services planned") for nobody to read. In one corner is the entrance to the "CIP Lounge" (there'll be no VIPs here, just Commercially Important Persons). And, at either end of the concourse, several long blocked-off staircases and escalators lead down to the platforms below.
There are an awfullot of different railway tracks passing through Stratford - seven in total. The outermost tracks are for stopping Eurostar trains (and there won't be many of them). Next come the fast lines for non-stop international travel, followed by a pair of domestic platforms. Suburban services from London to Kent will (eventually) pass through this way, splitting at the new Ebbsfleet station to head for either Ashford or Canterbury. And finally, running down the centre of Stratford Box, there's a single track for trains bound for the new Eurostar depot at Temple Mills. Trains will be stopping in the local area, oh yes, but only so that the drivers and staff can get on and off. You won't be coming here any time soon, that's for sure.