No matter what your politics, you have to take your hat off to Pierre Mauroy, the former Socialist French prime minister and mayor of Lille. Without him, there would be no Channel tunnel and no international railway station in Lille.
It was he who convinced his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, that a tunnel between the UK and France would be good. Or, as he has publicly remembered the agreement, when he broached the subject with her, she didn’t say no.
Which, ultimately, became a yes.
There were several options up for consideration, including a suspension bridge, two roads tunnels and a tunnel between artificial islands approached by bridges. In the end, an idea from the 1970s was revived, a train tunnel.
It is, in fact, 3 tunnels: 1 outbound and 1 inbound rail tunnel, plus a service tunnel in the middle.
It opened in May 1994. Now, almost 25 years later, more than 20 million passengers use the Channel tunnel each year. The train line serves Paris, Brussels and, as of this year, Amsterdam.
Importantly, it also stops in Lille – but that wasn’t the original plan.
“Routing the train through the centre of Lille would add 3 minutes to each journey to, rail chiefs told Mauroy”
There are two ways to approach routing an important new train line. You can take the train away from existing towns. On the plus side, you minimise disruption, but on the minus side, you create stations that are inaccessible to anyone without a car.
Let’s call that the Ebbsfleet model.
Or you can do what Pierre Mauroy convinced SNCF to do: bring the railway into the centre of the city. Originally, rail chiefs planned to create a station in the middle of nowhere to the west of Lille and route the trains via Amiens.
Routing the train through the centre of Lille would add 3 minutes to each journey to, they told Mauroy. Multiplied to the nth degree, that would cost 800 million francs in old money.
That was what they asked of him. Instead, he rallied the city behind a proposal to pay the railway half that amount. And in fact, 270 million francs of that money actually came from the regional authority.
The result – la gare de Lille-Europe – led to the revitalisation of the former industrial city of Lille.
That is what has enabled me and Damon to come and live here so easily. I can carry on taking the train to London each week while I look for work here in my new home town.
More likely perhaps, given my international background, is a job in Brussels. The Belgian – and European – capital is just 30 minutes away by train from here.
The only trouble is, Belgium’s train company, Thalys, has announced in the past couple of weeks that it plans to stop its high-speed service between Lille and Brussels from next year. Quite what that means for me work-wise, I am not yet sure.
Nevertheless, Lille remains a well-connected place to be, offering direct services throughout France and beyond – and the city owes that to its former mayor, Pierre Mauroy.
Photos © Gouvernement.fr and Gare de Lille-Europe