Eurostar – jolly nice but a missed opportunity

Perhaps one of Mrs Thatcher’s most unexpected legacies was the Channel Tunnel, connecting Britain with France by rail. Not only did it seem to belie her Euroscepticism, but she was known to dislike the railways and only travelled on them a couple of times during her premiership. It’s still a surprise to remember that it was under her leadership that the decisions to build the tunnel and to make it a rail-only connection were made.

The tunnel and in particular the Eurostar services which hurtle between London and Paris (and, ironically, Brussels, the headquarters of the European bureaucracy) were intended to bring about a change in our relationship with Europe. Perhaps, the dreamers thought, passengers standing at St Pancras International station (or Waterloo, the UK’s international rail terminus until 2007) would one day be offered the same array of destinations as at Frankfurt, where there are trains to Paris and Prague, Milan and Copenhagen.

It’s certainly the case that Eurostar has made travelling to the two capitals of France and Belgium much more pleasant than before. Rail is a far more satisfying way to travel than making for one of London’s airports and flying, with Paris just two-and-a-quarter hours away on the fastest trains and Brussels a mere two hours. Eurostar, which attracted more than 10 million passengers last year for the first time, has wiped out the competition from air on its two main routes, gaining more than two thirds of the market share. It offers a city-centre to city-centre trip that easily beats the plane in terms of time and comfort. Moreover, even though Eurostar has yet to get wi-fi on its trains, people are still able to work on their laptops and smartphones as the French countryside rolls by: a key advantage for rail.

The ride is smooth, the seats relatively comfortable and the staff – who are mainly French because of the difficulty of recruiting English people with sufficiently good French to work in the bilingual environment of the trains – unfailingly polite. There is, too, the pleasure of looking out of the window to see the train far outpace even the Mercedes cars favoured by French business people on the adjoining autoroutes in Northern France. The service is also about to get better. New trains are on the way, controversially ordered from the German manufacturer Siemens rather than the French-owned Alstom. They will start coming on stream next year and will be roomier and well as having more capacity – up to 950 seats, 200 more than the current carriages.

However, that radical transformation of European travel for British passengers has not come about. Unlike most 20 year olds, Eurostar has changed little since its birth. Sure, the journey times have got quicker thanks to the opening of the high speed link between London and the Channel Tunnel in 2007, but few extra destinations have come on track and the rolling stock, now also 20 years old, is looking a bit wan, despite some recent enhancements.

Disneyland Paris was introduced as a new destination in 1996 as there is a TGV station nearby – and with fares priced as low as £69 return, it has become a destination for parents wanting to give their children the Mickey Mouse experience without the expense of a transatlantic flight. Since 1997, “snow trains” have run to Bourg St Maurice serving a number of key ski resorts in the French Alps, including Courchevel, Les Arcs and Val d’Isère. But thereafter only Avignon was added as a direct service – a summer-time stop for British tourists heading for Provence.

There are several reasons for this limited expansion. First, there are not many destinations where running a daily or more frequent train with 750 seats is justified. Channel Tunnel rules mean that the 18-coach-long trains are not allowed to be split – and operating such lengthy trains is expensive and cannot be justified to minor destinations.

Secondly, European railways are very heavily regulated. Under EU rules, operators have to pay access charges per kilometre for their trains to use the track, pushing up fares for longer journeys; there is an additional charge for going through the tunnel. Moreover, there is a limit to the length of time people are prepared to sit in trains rather than fly.

However, the biggest barrier has been red tape centred around security issues. The Channel Tunnel Act of 1987 requires train operators to screen baggage, while the Borders Agency insists that trains are run from dedicated platforms sealed off from the rest of the station to prevent illegal immigrants climbing aboard. Initially it was assumed that some of these rules could be eased and that passport checks would eventually be made on board, but this has been vetoed. As a result it is simply not cost-effective to run from many destinations.

Nevertheless, the introduction of the 10 new train sets – costing a total of upwards of £700m – will mean Eurostar becoming more proactive in developing new routes. The first sets are to be deployed on services to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille which will run all year round, starting from 1 May 2015. To meet security regulations, return passengers will board as usual in France, then have have to disembark at Lille with all their baggage, go through security and return to the train, a process that will add an hour – and plenty of hassle – to their journey. This may well deter business travellers from using the service and will also dent the leisure market.

Nicolas Petrovic, the boss of Eurostar, has lobbied hard behind the scenes to get the security services to relent but has so far failed. He admitted: “It is not ideal but we would rather get the service going and establish it, and then work to make better arrangements.”

In late 2016, direct services to Rotterdam and Amsterdam are to be introduced using the new trains – without the disembarkation at Lille – to challenge what is one of the world’s busiest air routes. Eurostar is also considering several other destinations, such as Cologne or Frankfurt, but no decision has yet been taken.

Eurostar has had a 100 per cent safety record during its 20 years of operation, with no accidents – although there have been some bad days. The tunnel itself had major fires in 1996 and 2008, caused by lorries (on trains not connected with Eurostar) and on both occasions sections had to be closed for several months, causing disruption to services. In December 2009 four trains broke down in the tunnel and numerous others were held up outside in blizzard conditions. (The breakdowns were caused by – literally – the wrong sort of snow; a large quantity of fine snow entered the power cars and was sucked through the ventilation system to the electronic control cabinets where it melted and caused a series of failures.) In all, 75,000 people had their trips delayed and the chaos at St Pancras attracted national headlines (although when compared to the regular travails of passengers at Heathrow, the public relations effect soon blew over) and in a way simply reflected the fact that Eurostar has become an essential part of Britain’s infrastructure.

The service can be good value if you book in advance  – the £69 return has stayed at that price for many years. However, travelling at peak time is normally more expensive than equivalent airline flights (though the way air fares are adjusted almost minute by minute to suit the market make comparisons difficult). The basic fares with a “semi flex” ticket in Standard is normally around £305 return to Paris.

Hopes of a range of operators entering the market to rival Eurostar have not yet materialised either. A couple of years ago Deutsche Bahn announced plans to offer competing with direct services to Brussels and various destinations in Germany and one of its high speed ICE train was driven through the tunnel to St Pancras with much fanfare. However, it appears that DB have gone cold on the idea. There is as yet now no date for the start of services.

With those first passenger trains back in October 1994, Eurostar fundamentally changed our perceptions of travel to the Continent. The new services it has planned will certainly refresh our ideas, even the don’t offer the step-change that many have long hoped for. As for the future – travelling by train from Britain may never have the convenience of the cross-border hops available elsewhere in Europe, but as the rail gateway to a wider world Eurostar still has the capacity to impress.

  • Edward William Reza Hurst

    One of the saddest failings is the dropping of the original plan for direct Eurostar services to other parts of Britain, which was supposed to be the plan. I don’t want to open a debate about HS2 and 3, because those services were meant to happen anyway without those lines. Big missed opportunity.

  • Paul Holt

    Paragraph 1: Use Margaret instead of Mrs, for the same reason you don’t use Mr Petrovic subsequently.

  • Dan

    Indeed – and giving away the quality overnight trains at knock down prices to Canada – where I have traveled on them – was a mistake.

    If BR privatisation had not happened this would probably have been delivered

  • Keith

    The 18 coach-length-only rule seems ridiculous. And 950 seats? How will they be crammed in without even more coaches?

  • Richard C

    I have reason to travel regularly between Birmingham and Switzerland and I pay my own fare. The return journey from my local station to my destination station in Switzerland costs me a total of about £170 – a rail journey at each end and a flight with Swiss (Birmingham to Zürich). Typical journey time is about five hours.
    As a rail buff I would like to try at least once doing it by train, but there are several problems :
    The overall cost is about double what I typically pay to fly
    The overall time is more than double the time when I fly
    The rail journey crosses France so the service is not dependable due to bad attitudes of SNCF personnel

    It seems that Eurostar is competitive for journeys from London to Paris or Brussels but for people who do not live within spitting distance of one needing to travel to a destination beyond the other rail is simply uncompetitive. Having been doing the route regularly for five or six years the airline has let me down twice but on both occasions they recovered the situation admirably to minimise my discomfort and get me on my way.

    If Eurostar/RailTeam etc. start offering competitive fares and give a feeling that there will be support for those occasions when things go wrong then people like me would at least consider using rail for long distance journeys into Europe but I won’t hold my breath waiting for the breakthrough.

  • squeak

    I’m sick of people complaining about the security rules regarding passport controls and illegal immigrants. We all see in the news how immigrants have been camped in calais for over a decade trying various means to get into the UK. Those security checks have a genuine and valid purpose.

  • Sam

    I’m pretty sure it isn’t 18 coach-length only. You could have smaller trains, however it costs Eurostar the same amount to use the tunnel no matter how long the train is. For example if you had enough people to fill a 9 coach train to Frankfurt and another to Cologne, you could either run them separately and pay to use the tunnel twice, or you could join them together and pay to use the tunnel once – then when you get to Lille split them and travel separately. However they can’t do that because of rules with the Channel Tunnel that won’t allow splitting trains.

    If they are going to use the tunnel they may as fit as many coaches as they can in then

  • Steven Salmon

    Keith and Sam: In think the minimum train length in the Tunnel is something to do with the distance between the doors through which you can cross on foot from a running tunnel to the service tunnel in an emergency. If trains are too short, it would be possible for a whole train to be stuck in one section, reducing the options for escape. If you travel regularly, you will notice that one of the Train Managers always goes to the back cab while the train goes through the Tunnel. He/she is trained to drive the train out in a hurry if the leading cab/motors catch fire etc.

  • Robert van apeldoorn

    it seems that the Amsterdam train, that will stop in Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schipol will use the same process than in France. The passengers from Netherland and Antwerp to London will be checked (and there luggages) in Brussels Midi station, because it would be too expansive to create security check in the dutch railway station (and Antwerp). That’s a compromise that could be partially compensate by the higher speed of the train (320 km/h vs 300 km/h. It seems that higher speed will not be used immediately. That could perhaps spare 10 or 15 minutes between Brussels and London.

  • Peter M J Davies

    The seven 14 – coach North of London trains were built, tested and carried out signalling safety testing on the WCML. They were later tested and approved for operating between the then North Pole depot and Kings Cross and thence on the ECML (and four were leased to GNER who ran them to York and (I think) Leeds.

    The planned NoL service was abandoned because of (1) the growth of low cost airlines and (2) the realisation that the journey times would be uncompetitive.

  • Peter M J Davies

    The existing trains (both the 18 coach “3 Capitals” trains and the 14 coach “North of London” trains were specified to meet the requirements laid down by the Inter-Governmental Safety Commission (or is it Committee?). This meant that the train can be split at the middle (so-called ‘secability from the French word ‘secabilite’) to allow all passenger to be moved into a half train and for it to exit the Chunnel. This was envisaged as one emergency scenario. It is for secability that the two central coaches have individual bogies nearest to the mid-point of the train. Another IGSC rule was that the train could not enter the Chunnel unless two of the powered bogies were operating at each end of the train. This “2 + 2” rule was later relaxed to “2 + 1” i.e. 2 out of 3 powered bogies at one end and one powered bogey at the other end operational. There is a lamp on the driver’s desk which illuminates if this is not the case. Note that one powered bogey will haul a fully laden train from standstill in the central (flat) portion of the Chunnel to exit the Chunnel, albeit the two traction motors will be overheated and require checking.

  • decisivemoment

    I would love to see an end to the passport check paraphernalia on Eurostar, but in practice, unless Britain decides to join Schengen, the passport checks are there to say. Likely, even simply considering Schengen is going to require a national discussion about immigration, about Eurozone economic mismanagement, and about the level of population density Britain is comfortable with, that is far more mature than what has prevailed so far. And if such a discussion were to yield the answer “no”, then the Common Travel Area it shall be, and passports to France you shall show.

  • Michael

    HS2 Plan B offers the nearest possible alternative to direct Eurostar services from beyond London to France and beyond: a quite different north-south HS2 route and cross-platform interchanges at its London destination, St Pancras International.

    See argument and Plan B map at:

    Critiques welcome on:

    Michael Wand
    Strategic Adviser, HS1 route-planning team, 1990-94
    Chief Development Surveyor, London Docklands, 1981-84

  • 3-4 years at least for DB to come to London. Pity. If an operator came to London and offered commission, they’d get a load of support from retailers/agents/tour operators.