I’ve just been to Dresden by train, to attend a work-related conference. This, in many ways proved remarkably simple: travel down to London, take a 4pm Eurostar to Brussels, connect to a convenient Thalys train to Cologne, have dinner in Cologne and then take an overnight sleeper to Dresden, arriving at 7am the next morning.
My return journey went pretty well, too – I had an hour in Cologne to have some breakfast and then took a train back to Brussels in order to get the Eurostar. The border crossing between Germany and Belgium happens between Aachen and Liege, and the only thing that you notice is the beeps from people’s mobile phones as they switch to a roaming provider! If you’re a train nerd like me you also notice the brief flicker of the lights in Aachen station as they switch from German to Belgian electrical supplies (there’s a change of voltage AND frequency, how exciting!)
At Brussels South Station, I joined the queue for the Eurostar terminal. You queue first to scan your ticket on the automated gate, and then immediately join a queue for baggage security – there’s the usual bag x-ray and metal detector. Following this is outgoing Belgian border control, quickly followed by British border control. Just before the border control point, a door marked “Lille” allows passengers travelling to that city to skip the unnecessary border control – this is because Belgium and France are both in the Schengen Area which allows free movement without border control.
Finally, you reach the Eurostar lounge, which is actually a bit pitiful – a coffee shop, an expensive chocolate shop and some seating. But you only need to check in 30 minutes before departure, and the train usually boards 15-20 minutes before departure, so most people needn’t wait in the lounge for long.
Upon arrival at the still-fairly-shiny terminal at St Pancras, passengers queue down the platform and then onto a long escalator. At the bottom of the escalator the huge horde executes a brisk u-turn and joins… a British immigration queue! “But hang on”, I thought, “didn’t we do border control in Brussels?” I asked the border control officer (politely but firmly!) why they needed to check everyone’s tickets and passports again on arrival. It turns out that this is to do with Lille. I dimly recall a media hoo-hah a few years ago about immigrants getting into Britain on Eurostar, and this is the result. If you buy a ticket from Brussels to Lille, you are very likely to travel on Eurostar. Passengers travelling to Lille avoid border control, but no-one can actually guarantee that they leave the train at Lille –so some took advantage of this loophole to enter the UK without the necessary visa documents. The British press (predictably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) kicked up a fuss about this, and so the British border control agency attempted to close the loophole. Now, the problem is that the British authorities can’t legally interfere with passengers travelling between France and Belgium (in fact, an attempt to do this provoked a brief diplomatic row between the UK and Belgium, and the threat by Belgian authorities to arrest British border control officers in Brussels that attempted to do this!) and the Eurostar system was designed to make the border crossing as painless as possible when it first started. In fact, when Eurostar first began, the border checks were conducted on the train – but since a 2004 agreement, UK border staff have been stationed in stations in France and Belgium. The reason for this change is the perceived problem of political asylum. Under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the 1950 European Declaration of Human Rights, persons persecuted by foreign governments may claim asylum when they arrive in a foreign country. This is a headache for the UK government, as it means that they’re obliged to decide whether such persons are genuine refugees or “undesirable” economic migrants. Because the asylum rules kick in as soon as your feet touch the soil, the UK government tries hard to keep potential asylum-seekers out – even more so because they could (and should) be claiming asylum in France or Belgium. So, in order to maintain the “fortress Britain” idea and appease domestic political audiences, the UK now perversely has decided engage in extra border checks at St Pancras. The joys. As I said to the German couple ahead of me in the border control queue at Brussels – “I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t join the Schengen Agreeemnt, but it’s politically unacceptable!”.