The East London railway station with an entirely misleading name

Stratford International station was built with good intentions.

On the doorstep of the Olympic park, set to host the London 2012 Games, it was to become a new hub for cross-Channel connectivity with trains direct from East London to mainland Europe.

It opened in 2009, well ahead of the games, with the hope that Eurostar services which run non-stop through the station would be able to pick up and drop off continental spectators.

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In the longer term, the ambition was to make the station a stop for a new international service which would link destinations around the UK and mainland Europe, after previous attempts failed.

This attempt failed too. Now 12 years since the station opened, there’s still no international train services there despite the name.

There is a small glimmer of hope though…

Ready, but not quite ready

The other Stratford station is sometimes called Stratford Regional to distinguish it from its misleadingly-named cousin

The station has two international platforms, on either side of the Southeastern platforms in the middle of the station. In theory, they are set up and waiting to take future international trains.

There’s one big problem though, the track is not configured to let the trains turn around there without blocking other trains.

If a train came from the Channel Tunnel to Stratford, it would either have to wait until there were no other trains blocking all the other lines for the train to reverse or continue to St Pancras anyway.

To make matters worse, the future High Speed 2 (HS2) high speed railway line from London to Birmingham will not have a connection to the High Speed 1 (HS1) high speed railway line which runs through Stratford.

That scuppers any possibility of running high speed trains from north or west of London to mainland Europe stopping at Stratford.

In theory, there are small connections off the HS1 line which might allow some trains (notably freight trains) to get to other parts of the country, but these would provide such long, unattractive journey times to passengers that St Pancras would still remain the quickest option.

Sterilised station

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The station is served by non-international Southeastern High Speed trains between St Pancras and Kent

Since the station came into service, there have been calls for authorities to force Eurostar to stop trains there.

A 2019 HS1 report says: “It is important to note that ‘stopping International trains’ at Stratford International has always been possible since the station opened in 2007 and remains so.

“It is also a key requirement of HS1’s concession agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT) to maintain this provision for the life of the HS1 concession (until December 2040).”

For Eurostar, the station is more of a hindrance than a help. Eurostar trains travel at up to 200mph (usually 140mph on this section) so require longer distances to come to a complete stop and then accelerate again.

To do this just seven minutes before and after St Pancras would be too significant a time penalty overall. By the time the train left St Pancras, stopped at Stratford, then continued on towards Kent, it would be slower than a Southeastern train.

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Another complication is something called ‘sterilisation’. This is the process any international train operator has to undertake before a train goes through the Channel Tunnel.

As the UK is not in the EU Schengen (free movement) zone and the Channel Tunnel has very strict safety regulations, passengers have to go through security and then be held in separate, ‘sterile’ areas away from others.

This is similar to airports where as soon as you pass Border Force you are not allowed to return to any other part of the airport.

Stratford is configured in a way which would allow this to happen but is not equipped with the equipment or staffing which would be needed to make this work.

Until that happens, no international train could ever depart from here. Trains from the Channel Tunnel could drop passengers off here though as the sterilisation requirements do not apply once the train has traversed the Channel.

Hope for the future

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There were high hopes for extra international trains from London after the 2012 Olympics with Stratford International opening but none have materialised apart from Eurostar’s extension to Amsterdam

HS1 Ltd, the organisation which owns and operates the HS1 line through the station, is always looking for new train companies who can operate services along the route.

So far its successes include a series of freight companies (including one which ran a China to London weekly train) and the current passenger operators Eurostar and Southeastern.

A French sleeper train company called Midnight Trains hopes to start an overnight service between Edinburgh and Paris.

Should that train service intend to use HS1, it could stop at Stratford.

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Politicians from the German Green Party have also supported plans to have six night train routes operate between London and the mainland. As six extra trains per day all at similar times could be a stretch on the passenger terminal capacity at St Pancras, Stratford could serve as a new home.

As for the name, there are no plans to rename Stratford International, even the DLR station opposite has subsequently taken the name.

Suggestions banded about on social media include Stratford Westfield and Stratford Olympic Park.

Other stations called ‘International’ which have no international trains are Birmingham International (where there is an airport), Harwich International (where there is a ferry port), Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International (where Eurostar will resume in 2023).

A final thought on names at Stratford – there is a baby ‘Stratford International’!

What would you like to see happen at Stratford International? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Read MyLondon’s transport-related features and news stories at our dedicated page here.

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