Robbie and Gretel meet their Waterloo
Colin Davies and Robbie get on board...
The sight of two guide dogs carefully steering their owners across a busy city street hardly raises an eyebrow these days. Even in the heart of Paris such a hazardous manoeuvre would be simply routine for these superbly trained dogs who have been caring for their dependant owners for over 60 years.
So it was with some curiosity, on 8th October 2003 that Parisiens watched retrievers Gretel and Robbie doing their stuff with BBC cameras looking on and a small clutch of delighted Brits applauding their achievement. And what an achievement it was because, only a few minutes earlier Colin Davies and Dr Mike Nussbaum had stepped from the Eurostar onto the platform of Paris Gare du Nord station to become the first to take their guide dogs through the tunnel on this famous train.
Now with the imposing façade of the station behind them they were making history and proving that, if you try hard enough, all dreams can come true and another vital milestone in the passage of dogs to Europe has been successfully passed.
To celebrate the occasion, Eurostar had thrown a party and invited a few chosen guests to a free return trip to Paris. Naturally the chief guests were blind, accompanied by their dogs, and it was no accident that both men happened to be two that have been at the forefront of the campaign to finally allow dogs past the barriers and onto the train. On this bright morning we gathered at Waterloos International Terminal and prepared to be transported, in first class luxury, through the Channel Tunnel, to France. The journey would take just 2 hours & 50 minutes, onto the new high-speed section in Kent, at speeds in excess of 186 mph.
Until now, a blind person could buy a ticket on Eurostar and a concession for his travelling companion. Now the changes mean that his dog can go too at no extra charge - and he is guaranteed a seat. Even guide dogs are not actually allowed on seats but the space is his to stretch out and relax when he is not working. This time our four-legged travellers symbolically went to the ticket office and collected their own ticket, posed for the cameras, and then through the turnstiles to the waiting train. Earlier they had visited the new checking facilities to ensure that the appropriate microchips & health certificates were in order to comply with the new DEFRA Pets Passport conditions. It is, of course, no different for Guide Dogs they all have to follow the strict rules if they are to travel to Europe and return to the UK without quarantine.
The train was due to depart at 12.09 but there was much to do before that. Eurostar staff were everywhere, fussing over the dogs and clearly delighted at this opportunity to show how they can look after these special passengers. The long inclined travelator was switched off so as not to worry the dogs as they approached the platform and, because of the BBC team and the photographers, we were allowed on the train before the rest of the passengers. It is at times like this when you realise just how well trained guide dogs are.
Camera teams want their shots, photographers want their pictures and Eurostar wants their publicity. In the middle of this chaos two dogs act their parts patiently and with style.
Pictures of them taking their owners to the seats, pictures getting on, pictures getting off and pictures of happy passengers none were fazed by the experience and none showed any irritation. Then, almost unnoticed by our happy band, the train was on the move and threading its way out of this historic station. No one even mentioned the significance that it was named after a battle with the French of course and that, when we get off, we would be in Paris.
The talk on board however, was about battles, or rather campaigns waged to bring this day to fruition. Neither Mike nor Colin had met before this day, but their causes had been identical in applying pressure to Eurostar. Mike who is virtually blind was travelling with his partner Kate. They can come from Milton Keynes where Mike is still very active as the chair of many charities, necessitating frequent trips to Europe. Naturally his guide dog goes too and since the Pet Passports Scheme was introduced three years ago, Gretel has been across the channel many times using other modes of transport. In those early days, Eurostar were adamant that animals could not travel in their train.
Mike & Kate were not satisfied and so began the crusade. With the unstinting support of the GDBA, press features and help from MPs, Mike & Kate tackled the problem head on. They even enlisted the help of Frenchman PY Gerbeau, who many may remember was the high-profile director of Londons millennium celebrations in the dome. Often described as more English than French he was able to speak to his fellow countrymen to lobby Eurostar from the other end of the tunnel.
Colin Davies was travelling alone but always with Robbie of course. Colin has started his career in the Royal Air Force and, at retirement, was an Information Officer. Today he had come up from his home in Peacehaven near Brighton and not a stones throw from another route to the continent. The proximity of the French coast to his home added to the irony of his story. Since Pet Passports began, he has thought about travelling to Dieppe using the Hoverspeed ferry from Newhaven. Sounds simple really but there is a catch.
He can go out with his dog, but cannot come back. He is faced with the absurd situation that he must go back through Calais to use his words.. "A long trip for a packet of fags".
Colins strategy was different from Mikes but no less effective. He asked his girlfriend to book him & Robbie on Eurostar, hoping that they would take them but no. He then engaged the help of the local newspaper to do the same again the same answer. In fact the plan was to bang on the door until they let him in and eventually they did - but more importantly, they let in his beautiful Golden Retriever too. It was no wonder that Colin had a smile almost as long as the channel tunnel.
About 30 minutes after leaving London, the train accelerated to 186 mph. We were on the new high-speed section in Kent, and nothing was passing us now. Inside the carriage word had got around among our fellow passengers that they were sharing a unique experience.
Suddenly everyone wanted to see and stroke the dogs. Pocket cameras were clicked and the oohs & aahs showed that dogs and speeding trains go quite well together. Roger Harrison, who is Eurostars senior press liaison officer, was beaming with pride and explained their part in making this day happen. Eurostar knew of course that there would be pressure to extend their service to include guide dogs but could not do so until they were sure that they could manage and control the process. The stakes were high not the least because of the initial furore of a tunnel, connecting a rabies-free island to the mainland and the clear danger of diseased animals making the journey to Britain. However, risks of breaching rabies laws through unauthorised passage were one thing legal carriage on board was another.
The challenge was to find a way through the complexities of DEFRAs rules and get the right result. It was against this background that GDBA, DEFRA and Eurostar started the process that would end with todays adventure.
By now, perhaps lubricated by the free champagne, everyone was in a party mood. After a short stop at Ashford an announcement was made that we were about to enter the tunnel. We slowed to 100mph and our blind travellers felt their ears pop while I noticed a slight ripple appear on my champagne. As we disappeared under the English Channel the only sign of our pace was the occasional streak of a tunnel lamp passing the window. Twenty minutes later we thundered out into daylight and we were in France and I do believe it was raining.
We stopped at Calais and then off again once more at this breakneck speed through the featureless landscape of Northern France. One of my travelling colleagues, who was reporting the trip for a national rail magazine, pointed to his clever little GPS-gismo and declared that we had once touched 188 mph. Our two high-speed dogs knew nothing of this as they snoozed beside their charges, probably dreaming that the days work was almost over, but there was no chance of that. We had to get to Paris on time because someone had told them that we were coming. It sounded like our chums in France were going to join the party too. We welcomed the news because, by now, we were ready for anything.
At 15.59 (local time) we pulled into Paris. The journey time had been exactly as promised; we had enjoyed a fine lunch and made a sizeable dent in the trains wine caller. We were met by the demure Stephanie, the Station Manager, who immediately made a fuss of our two VIP passengers. In France, the carriage of dogs does not make the news it does here and a cursory wave of the dogs papers was enough to secure their welcome. More platform photographs and interviews before we set off, through the concourse, in search of something that all dogs love; a tree, or a patch of greenery. Once outside however, there was more to do so the dogs had to wait just a little longer. Neither dog seemed bothered that the traffic was coming from the other side and took to Paris easy as an escargot takes to garlic butter. Mike & Gretel mingled with the busy Parisienes outside the station while Colin & Robbie found a roadside café and gave a short interview with the BBC. The camera crew were following Colin exclusively and their report was featured on BBC SE that evening.
Our orders were to be ready to catch the 17.43 for the return journey. Little time for sightseeing but just time to catch more views from GDBA & Eurostar on how the day had gone so far. Both parties agreed that the operation had exceeded their expectations and praised each for the constructive and positive way it had been undertaken. Neil Ewart who is Breeding Quality Co-ordinator at GDBA had been involved all the way and explained some of the detail, highlighting that the biggest problem was to install the checking facilities at Waterloo. The same views came from my earlier talk with Matt Grainger who is the GDBA Public Affairs Manager. He echoed that this was a great day for guide dog owners and Eurostar too. Putting the case for his organisation, he was sure that, now the facility has opened, many will take the opportunity to travel to France & Belgium, in the same way as able-bodied passengers can. He also noted that there was a strong business case for Eurostar, because the blind community in Britain contribute a staggering £28m of consumer spend per year.
There was just time for another small glass in the Gare du Nord VIP restaurant before showing our tickets and boarded the train for home. Mike, Kate & Gretel were absent because they had decided to spend the night with friends and would return the next day.
The rest of the party found their seats and were soon talking about their experiences. Paris Eurostar staff bade us au revoir and we were on our way. The journey from Paris to London was scheduled to be twenty minutes quicker because we were not stopping. No sooner had we settled to watch the citys suburbs slip away than dinner arrived - with yet more wine.
Time to look back over the days events and to confess my admiration for the resolve of two blind people who had taken on an international company and got the result they deserved. I was happy almost! but felt that I had to ask the question one more time - Had the long gap from the start of the Pet Passport scheme to this day, been truly unavoidable? As we pulled into Waterloo I located Roger Harrison again to ask him if he had enjoyed the day.
His face was a mixture of joy & relief bearing the signs that all the painstaking work had been worthwhile. The tests that were done using real dogs, the safety procedures for emergency evacuation in the tunnel, the training of Eurostar staff to handle dogs and, perhaps most important of all, the measures to prevent non-guide dogs and owners from illegally using the service. Only now could he tick the boxes and declare the job done. Perhaps today we expect things to take place at speeds similar to the Eurostar train, and we fail to consider what has to be done backstage to make it happen. I had my answer. Yes, it had been a long time particularly for the best-behaved dogs on the planet - but all good things are worth waiting for.
As the mighty train rolled to a halt, Colin reached for the harness, and Robbie knew it was time to go back to work. They were heading for their hotel in Edgware Road and, about 400 miles away, Mike & Gretel were relaxing in Paris. Suddenly Europe seemed a little closer and I felt privileged to be part of such a momentous day. We had witnessed how a huge organisation can be completely disarmed by two gentle dogs and had seen the dawning of a new era. On a day of joy and success, two new Eurostars have earned their place in history.