Off the Hook

When it comes to trains, Alene and I are from two different worlds.

She is from the southwest of England, where the romantic tradition of rail travel refuses to die, even though the last steam locomotive was taken out of service back in 1968. This is the land of the Great Western Railway — and Thomas The Tank Engine. As a little girl, one of Alene’s biggest thrills was to go into town with her sister and grandmother to watch the Atlantic Coast Express from London come through in the late afternoon. Many of the trains from the westcountry have as the London terminus Paddington Station, with elegant Victorian trainshed and statues of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Paddington Bear. It’s hard to be a kid in this part of England and not grow up loving trains.

But I am from suburban Essex, where trains are nothing more than conveyances for long-suffering commuters — with all the romance of a crowded men’s toilet. At least that’s how I remember trains.

But there is one element of romance in my youthful recollections — the boat trains leaving from Liverpool Street Station for Harwich Parkeston Quay — and the ferry to the Hook of Holland. This is also part of Alene’s history, as it was from here that she began both the journeys she made up through Scandinavia.

It used to be exciting to hear the boat train announced — “with connections at Hoek van Holland for Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, eastern Europe and the USSR.” I never made the trip myself. My first trip to Germany was with five other guys in a rusty van that went on the ferry to Ostende. But Alene remembers getting off the ferry at the Hook and walking up the long platform of the rail station to board the Northwest Express for Copenhagen.

Over coffee this afternoon, we read about the new Eurostar service connecting London with Marseilles. I have ridden Eurostar between London and Paris a few times — but trips to Paris have always been an excuse to pilot myself in a private plane. Anyway, we got a little excited reading about possibilities for expanding Eurostar over the next twenty years — and we ended up browsing the web for various things concerning international rail travel — which is how we learned that international expresses no longer leave from Hoek van Holland. The port is now only served by local trains to Rotterdam. There is still a boat train connection between London and The Netherlands via Harwich International (as it is now called) and Hoek van Holland— but if your destination is Scandinavia or points east, the Northwest Express has not run since 1993.

It’s amazing to think back to when I was a child — and how people used to joke about the idea of a Channel tunnel as something that would never happen. Yet Eurostar trains have been running between London and Paris for more than twenty years now.

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