Two hours from Waterloo on Eurostar and you are in unglamorous Lille, the third city of France. The embarrassing dawdle through Kent, then foot down and up to 300kms an hour once on the French high-speed track, seems a telling metaphor for our failure to embrace the New Europe. The city of Lille has not made the same mistake. It has seized an opportunity to recast itself and invest heavily in a Europe of single markets, weak frontiers, stateless multinationals and fast land travel.
Like many of Europe's manufacturing cities, Lille has been forced to construct a new identity in the face of declining textile, mechanical and electrical engineering industries. The opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link and the extension of the French TGV high-speed rail network into northern Europe gave the city an unrivalled opportunity to exploit its position at the centre of a land-based transport network reaching deep into Europe. Pierre Mauroy, Mitterrand's Prime Minister from 1981-84 and Mayor of Lille for very much longer, fought against the original plan for the rail link to bypass Lille altogether. He then offered sweeteners to French Railways to build their new station for the Eurostar trains in the centre of the city rather than on cheap land on the outskirts.
In The 100 Mile City, Deyan Sudjic argued that successful cities have distanced themselves from national contexts. The new generation of high-speed trains will restructure the mental maps of politicians, businessmen and tourists. With most of the TGV Nord trains stopping at the Lille-Flandre terminus, a few hundred metres from the new Lille-Europe station, Lille is now within a two-hour train ride of upwards of 70 million people: two hours to London, Amsterdam or Cologne, an hour to Paris and only 25 minutes from the EU bureaucrats in Brussels. Even Ashford in Kent is getting in on the act, exploiting its 40-minute journey time from Lille to join their bid for the 2004 Olympics.
Lille has responded to all this with foresight and daring, signing up Rem Koolhaas, the uncompromising Dutch architect, to draw up a master plan for Euralille, a new city quarter to exploit Lille's dramatically expanded hinterland. Koolhaas believes that: "The train will destroy the idea of an address. People will say their office is 50 minutes from Disneyland or two hours from London."
Koolhaas is avowedly modernist in his conception of urban planning and firmly against the kind of contextualised building which tries to tame hypermarkets, convention centres and financial factories "with the imagery of Siena". Movement, speed, technology, modern materials are celebrated in his work. He aims to revitalise the kind of wholesale restructuring of cities which went out of fashion after the 1960s and disasters like Birmingham's Bull Ring Centre.
On this unique web of railways, the Pounds 617 million Euralille project is well under way, financed by the kind of partnership between public and private sector which gets labelled as deviant in Little England. The money has been stitched together by a Societe d'economie mixte of local and regional authorities, together with a dozen banks and building societies. With much of it built over the new Lille-Europe station, Eurallile has hotels, a giant shopping centre by star French architect Jean Nouvel and Koolhaas' Rand Palais with 20,000 square metres of exhibition space for trade fairs, a conference centre and a 5,500 seat venue for rock concerts and other spectaculars.
As well as its new found importance as an international rail centre, Euralille is tied into Lille's state-of-the-art, computer-controlled Metro which runs underground and in elevated concrete troughs in part of the suburbs. The tiny two carriage trains run at one-minute intervals during rush hours and every four to five minutes at other times. It is spooky not only because it is driverless but because its rather eerie stations are staffed by little more than security cameras.
Energy-saving escalators in the stations switch on when you step on them. Fixed-price tickets for around a pound are valid for journeys of any length and part of an integrated transport network in the city. One Metro stop links Euralille to Lille-Flandre station which, with 15 million passengers a year, is France's most heavily used station after the Paris termini.
It has taken courage to invest at this level before the full impact of the TGV Nord and of Eurostar have been evaluated. There are lessons to be learned about the use of prime urban space with a high market value. Instead of the soft option of maximising its profitability, Lille managers have not been afraid to devote an 18-hectare site between Euralille and the old city centre to the new Parc Matisse, which will open next year. The powerful market forces which bleed city centres with cheaper out-of-town development have been resisted by determined political will.
Added to this, the juxtaposition of a brashly modernist development close to Lille's beautifully restored historic core, with buildings dating back to the Flemish Renaissance, raises other issues and shows the French do not have our inhibitions about moving confidently into the next century and embracing a new conception of Europe with impressive enthusiasm.
* There are surprisingly good reductions of up to 30 per cent for groups of 25 or more on Eurostar and the TGV, together with linked hotel reductions. Tel: The Rail Shop, 0345 300 003
* The 100 Mile City by Dejan Sudjic is published by Flamingo at Pounds 7.99