I’m not keen on catching sight of my fellow travelers on the channel tunnel. I don’t like to see people in their road clothes, their scuffs, their baggies, their trackies, their onesies. Their pyjamas. I think you should have standards when it comes to presenting yourself in public. And that bombed out roadtrip look upsets me: it reminds me that many other road users are as tired as I am, that we’re all reacting 30% more slowly. You see people parked beneath the signs saying “double-decker” and “single-decker”, trying to work out what it all means. Coming out of a service station that serves both directions on the autoroute and slamming on the brakes: wait, which way?
At the beginning of my continental driving career, back when I could do the whole twelve hour drive and not get out of the car with seized knees and swollen ankles, I tried to arrange crossings so that we could maximise daylight. Like many, I’m not keen on driving at night. My night vision is poor, and I am very afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. We’d cross around six, then make the 6½ hour drive (8 hours with breaks) across France with the sun mostly in the sky. Now the kids are older, or now the kids don’t even come with us sometimes, we sometimes do the drive with just a single, short, stop. It’s brutal, cruel, inhuman. Even worse, we now tend to do it overnight. This came about mainly because we bought Frequent Traveler tickets, and if you want to avoid the surcharge, you end up getting on a train at two o’clock in the morning.
My anxiety before these trips is now almost overwhelming. A hollow feeling in my chest before setting out; a feeling that I don’t even want to go; continual flashbacks to those moments when things have gone wrong. I was especially worried this time that it would rain and I would experience those moments of blind terror when trying to overtake trucks throwing up tsunamis of spray.
The other reason for these night crossings, the channel tunnel shuttle gradually got more and more popular. If you travel at peak times, you encounter long waits, gridlocked access roads, jammed up car parks, interminable waits for passport control.
We were early adopters of the tunnel. It was more expensive than the ferry, but much quicker, and (dealmaker) there was no seasickness on my part. But in those early days, before the rolling stock looked shagged out and before the toilets were totally borked, it was relatively quiet, feeling almost exclusive (except we were there). Then two or three things happened to change that.
The first is pure guesswork, but I suspect the price of the train and the price of the ferry converged. There were a few shaky years for the Tunnel, when the company was being bailed out by banks, when they got aggressive with the fare prices. These days? Not so much, I think, but a lot of people, once they’ve tried it, don’t want to go back.
The second thing that happened was an enormous increase in the number of Eastern Europeans using the service. When you are driving all the way back to Poland to visit relatives at Christmas, then the time-saving presented by the Eurotunnel is significant. I suppose there are equal numbers of people who choose the ferry precisely because you get a couple of hours to shut your eyes? Anyway, there were noticeably more Eastern Europeans on the service once those countries joined the EU, especially if you happened to be in the single-decker train with the vans and the coaches.
The third thing was that, after the initial honeymoon period, traveling with the budget airlines became intolerable for many. We took Easyjet to Basel or the South a couple of times ourselves, to save on the driving. But it’s so horrible, and got worse, which is before you get to the horrorshow of Ryanair, and I think a lot of people opted to drive rather than face the ritual humiliation of those buses in the sky. That accounts for the mix of people you started to see at the increasingly crowded terminal.
There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that, for the past several years, the channel tunnel terminal has been busy almost round-the-clock. You walk into the building at midnight and it’s crowded, and there are cars snaking around the nightmare of a car park, queueing, often too early and out of turn, for passport control.
Until this time, that is. In what I can only assume is a Brexit-related development, we crossed today from a very quiet terminal, passing straight onto a train with no delays, no waiting, no frustration. There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.
And the first hundred kilometres on the autoroute were similarly quiet. We passed through the night on cruise control, only rarely overtaking a truck. I sometimes saw a car’s headlights carving through the darkness off in the countryside. It wasn’t until we passed the junction with the A2 from Belgium that we started to see other cars in significant numbers: Belgian cars. Very few Brits. We saw a couple of coachloads of school trippers at the one service station we stopped at, but that was it. So, this time, there I saw nobody in a onesie, no kids in pyjamas. It was a ghost terminal.
Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to have been told it would be unwise to travel at this time. The perfect storm of strikes and gilets jaunes and Brexit, it seems. Perhaps some thought that if they left the UK this weekend, they’d be refused entry after April 12. Who knows? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt stalk the land.