Stratford used to have one station - the big glassmegahub close to the town centre. And now it has two. A brand new station has opened to the north of the old, on the High Speed rail line between St Pancras and the continent. The station's called StratfordInternational and it opened for regular service yesterday, although it's been open for "preview" services for the last fortnight. It's cost millions to construct, requiring the removal of a vast trench of earth (the StratfordBox) and the erection of a state of the art passport-enabled terminal. It was completed more than three years ago, but has been mothballed ever since because of one slight drawback - it's located in the middle of an enormous building site. Planners did have the sense to build anaccessroad on concrete stilts across the Lea Valley, but the sealing-off of the Olympic Park sealed that off too. Eurostar have since shown no interest in stopping here, but the dawn of Southeastern's new High Speed timetable has forced the station to open, sort-of, however inaccessibly.
Stratford International station is a genuine challenge to get to. But I like a challenge.
The sign beside the ticket window in front of Stratford Regional station said that I could buy all my train tickets here. So I tried. "I'd like to buy a return to Ebbsfleet, please." The poor bloke behind the counter struggled with his keyboard, tapping away for at least a minute before giving up. "I can't do that here," he said eventually. "But you can buy a ticket from the end of Platform 11". So off I trudged through the ticket barriers (lucky I had my Oyster travelcard on me, otherwise I'd have been stuck) and along to the end of the subway. Eleven's a long and lonely platform [photo], and I had to walk the entire length of it before reaching the plastic shelter where a uniformed contractor was waiting with a ticket machine slung round his neck.
"I'd like to buy a return to Ebbsfleet, please. Oh, and I've got a Gold Card, does that help?" It turned out (after a bit of a search) that a Gold Card didn't help, so I wouldn't be getting my usual one-third off. No, it was full fare, £11.10. Except that I'd been sold a duffer. "Excuse me," I said, "this ticket says 'not valid on High Speed' services, but there's no way to get from Stratford to Ebbsfleet except on High Speed services." So he had another go, and admitted he'd been wrong, and sold me a proper ticket for £12.40. Ouch. For comparison, a return from St Pancras to Ebbsfleet costs only 10p more, so Stratford passengers are being fleeced here. And if I'd taken the slow train from central London to Ebbsfleet's nearest non-Highspeed station, I could have bought a return for under a fiver. Velocity costs, big time.
And then the weak link in my futuristic journey. A single decker bus was waiting to whisk me from Stratford Regional to Stratford International (via a particularly tortuous detour through a building site) so that I could eventually be dropped off on the other side of the Eurostar chasm [map]. Along the way we passed the London 2012 Athletes Village where only a few blocks are so far semi-complete, but legacy apartments are already being created on a massive scale [photo]. From the opposite window there was also a fine view of the new Westfield Stratford City retail fortress, risen from the soil and now at the adding-cladding stage [photo]. Come 2011 you'll be able to mall-walk between the two stations past an M&S and John Lewis (in Stratford! how optimistically aspirational!). Before that, next summer, a lengthy sinuous DLR link will go live, ending at a terminus that currently looks more like an incomplete petrol station [photo]. The bus journey through the building site took three minutes, quicker than I expected, but I fear that the Regional and International stations are destined never to be particularly well connected.
Stratford International had one customer when I arrived - me. The long hangar-like ticket hall hadn't changed much since I last visited two years since ago as part of London Open House. It was still a featureless echoing void, completely empty apart from a few (unstretched) staff and a big Christmas tree [photo]. I could tell that this isn't yet a proper profitable station because nobody's opened a coffee shop, or indeed a kiosk or outlet of any kind. The gates to the Eurostar departure zone remain firmly shut until there's a business case for stopping continental services mid-E15. Indeed the station's very badly named at the moment because the most 'International' place served by train services is Dover. Other destinations on the badly-sited departures board include Faversham and Margate, but not yet Paris or Brussels.
I proceeded down the escalator [photo] to the domestic platforms, deep in Stratford Box, with dim distant tunnel portals visible at each end of the giant trench. Engineering-wise this might be a fascinating place, but architecturally it's bland and uninspiring [photo]. Concrete pillars, broad featureless platforms and occasional security announcements - best hope your train arrives soon [photo]. The occasional Eurostar service rushed by, its occupants no doubt delighted not to be wasting time by stopping [photo]. No such luck for the next Southeastern service to St Pancras Domestic, which braked and slowed and stopped and paused and waited, all so that a single passenger could disembark. There were plenty of souls on board, mostly families enjoying the fast route from far distant Kent to the heart of King's Cross. But it'll be a long time before Stratford International becomes a short haul commuter hub of choice. It may be only seven minutes from St Pancras to here, but it takes rather longer than seven minutes to escape (via hopper bus and long trek) to Stratford proper.
» Tomorrow I'll tell you about where I went, and whether things were any less bleak at the other end.