In terms of pounds per minute I wonder if there's a more expensive rail journey in the country. £12.40 return for ten minutes there and ten minutes back, that's highway robbery. But to travel as many as 16 miles in those ten minutes, from Olympic London to a Kentish field, that's not quite so terrible. Not quite.
The new bullet-headed trains that run on the High Speed route are comfortable without being luxurious. There's plenty of room for luggage, and the usual preference for twin seats rather than family-friendly tables of four. And it's a very smooth ride, accelerating up to a speed of "rather nippy, most definitely faster than usual". The train zips beneath Newham, emerges in Dagenham for a few above-ground marsh-side minutes, then dips below the Thames into Kent. There's barely time to do anything (except perhaps read a copy of the London Lite, if it still existed) before ascending into Kent [photo] and decelerating [photo] for arrival in Ebbsfleet[photo].
There aren't many reasons to go to Ebbsfleet[photo]. You might be here to catch a train to Brussels or Paris, given that you can't board one in Stratford. Or you might be here to climb into your car, because Ebbsfleet at the moment is little but an enormous car park. Eurostar know that nigh everyone in Kent and around the M25 has a car, so they've made it really easy to drive here. Elevated signs direct passengers towards the car parks but not towards the only bus stop, and absolutely definitely not towards any pedestrian exit. I had to ask a member of staff how to escape on foot (answer: follow the signs toward the car park). On my way I passed another entrance to two more platforms, used no more than twice an hour by trains to Rochester and Faversham. There were two staff here, clearly with almost nothing to do, so they were more than happy to spare the time to help me out.
It's a very long car park. I got funny looks from another member of staff as I paused to take a photograph (cracker of a photograph, I think), but thankfully no vanful of armed police arrived to arrest me a few minutes later. At the barrier I had to step up onto the muddy verge and then wander across a roundabout because nobody's thought to provide a pavement. I think the station planners assumed that non-car drivers would take the bus, but it's not worth it for a single stop to Northfleet. I'm not the first person to attempt this journey on foot. Paul tried it back in June on the day the first High Speed preview services ran, and ran into loads of trouble trying to walk from Northfleet to Ebbsfleet. Flick through his photo story here.
Whereas Ebbsfleet will one day be Kent's largest housing estate, Northfleet is rather smaller and older. It clings to the chalk ridge above the River Thames, staring out over estuary-side industries towards Tilbury Docks. Nowhere here will win any prizes for scenery. There's a 14th century church, and a quarry or two dug out of the escarpment, and a football ground at the bottom of the hill [photo]. Ebbsfleet United have been pottering around in the lower leagues since the 1940s, but last year made history when they were bought out by an online consortium. Twenty thousand global shareholders lifted the team to FA Trophy victory, but when annual memberships started to elapse the money dried up, and now the future looks less rosy.
As for Northfleet station, that's a world away from the International Gateway across the car park at Ebbsfleet. Up Station Road there's an unloved wooden ticket hall, locked on Sundays, and two lonely platforms where trains to Gravesend sometimes pause. Southeastern's High Speed services may soon suck the passengers away from this old faithful halt. But those who value money more than time will still assemble here, day in day out, to catch the Slow Speed up to London.