Rail 760: Eurostar struggles to make a European impact

Nigel Farage may want to take us out of Europe but in many respects, oddly, our railways have never really truly connected with it. Eurostar is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary but it has not had the impact on our railway system that seemed possible at the time the Channel Tunnel was built.

Talking to a group of railway ticket agents recently confirmed my view that the Eurostar service has been stymied by government legislation, safety rules and the timidity of its executives. Take, for example, ticketing. It is still impossible to buy tickets through Eurostar for most European destinations.

On the Eurostar website, there are 70 destinations in France but while many big cities are omitted, you can buy a ticket for St Pierre des Corps and Le Creusot (presumably not where the Le Creuset cooking pots are made). Belgium is well covered – though the free onward travel to any destination there is no longer offered – since SNCB, the Belgian railway is a part owner and it is a small country.  There are three destinations in each of the Netherlands and Germany, and oddly five in Switzerland.  It is possible to buy tickets to travel from around 100 stations in the UK, but that is still pretty poor given there are some 2,500 overall. So for the most part, people turning up at St Pancras Eurostar ticket offices seeking to buy tickets for continental destinations are despatched to other agencies, notably Trainseurope which has a counter in St Pancras next to the East Midlands one – and clearly takes a cut from providing the service.

Eurostar boss Nicolas Petrovic reckons that expanding the market for precisely these markets is crucial to Eurostar’s future. ‘The Eurostar market is made of many smaller markets, ‘, he told me ‘and clearly travel that takes in a Eurostar journey as part of a longer trip is a key one’. Eurostar passed the 10 million mark annually for the first time I 2014 (nearly 20 years late compared with original projections when the service first opened but let’s leave that aside) but now needs to grow fast since new rolling stock has been ordered.  The biggest recent growth market, incidentally, has been foreign visitors on trips around Europe who visit London using the train.

Petrovic says these new trains will be used on all year round routes to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and places in France such as Marseille, Avignon and Lyon but – and this is a big but – travellers to those French destinations will be encumbered by the kind of travel experience that seems devised by the KGB  or the Stasi. Because of the security requirements of going through the tunnel and the refusal of the Borders Agency to check passports on trains, passengers will have to leave the train at Lille, with their luggage, go through customs and passport control, and get back on, a process that will add an hour to their journey time.

This has already been happening this summer on trains from Avignon and words fail me in describing just how the bonkers nature of such a process – choose any from crazy, insane, mad, ridiculous, daft.  Only the railways would have to endure such a crazy scheme – it is rather like asking people to get out of their cars and push them for 100 yards so that they can park it. The more insuperable barrier, apparently, is not so much the passengers but their luggage which needs to be screened to get through the tunnel as enshrined in the Channel Tunnel Act. This is in itself madness. An explosion in the tunnel would of course be deadly but it would have to be of a size far beyond a suitcase full of explosives to damage the tunnel itself – explosions spread through the weakest point and therefore would run along the tunnel.  Eurostar needs to get together with Eurotunnel to clarify these requirements but also it should not accept this shabby arrangement. It could, for example, use one carriage for baggage alone, screen it all with a portable machine and get round the legislation that way. Making passengers get on and off a train is just not acceptable in the 21st century and severely degrades the product. I for one would hesitate about wasting my time in that way.

The new destinations will be welcome, but the slow progress that Eurostar has made in adding new destinations demonstrates the rigidity of the railways in trying to adapt to their product to the needs of the 21st century. In 2007, the various high speed services in Europe got together to create Railteam which was supposed to create a seamless travel  arrangement between different operators and a unified website. In fact, the website idea has been abandoned as the systems proved incompatible and Railteam as a brand has made all the impact of a fleabite on a rhinoceros.

Much of this is not the railways’ fault but rather the result of over-regulation and government interference. The fact that railways in narrow economic terms are rarely commercial is their undoing but with strong leadership from railway managers and support from the right sort of politicians – like all too briefly Lord Adonis provided – so much of their potential could be realised.

Incidentally, Eurostar is still 40 per cent owned by the British government but that arrangement is about to end as the Chancellor, George Osborne, is keen for any small goodies to put in his tuck box, even though the expected £300m garnered from the sale will barely make any difference to the £2,000 billion national debt – in other words just 0.015 per cent.  Ideology rules again, I suspect, since Eurostar is at last beginning to make a bit of money (having had the capital value of its trains written off and also been majority owned by SNCF whose finances make an Italian train window seem transparent!)

Privatisation will probably make any further integration even more difficult. The more owners there are for Europe’s high speed lines, the less likely are joint arrangements and deals.  With reports that several sleeper services are being scrapped, some very longstanding, in Europe, the continents railways are becoming less connected, not more. Farage will be delighted.

 

Virgin’s non existent ticket checks

 

I always find it odd that the train companies, so anxious to collect every penny from the odd passenger who transgresses the advanced ticket rules and unapologetic about making them pay all over again for a new ticket, are so lax about ticket checks.

After my recent rant (I confess I do rant sometimes) about the lack of ticket checks on several long trips on Virgin, a reader, Chris Lewis, wrote to agree. He said that Chris Gibb, the former boss of Virgin Rail, had promised to institute regular on train checks but these had not materialised. (I know from talking to Chris, an excellent and thorough manager, that he was very exercised about this but somehow could not persuade the train managers to walk down the train. I used to text him regularly when checks did not materialise and he took action.)

Chris Lewis pointed out that checks between stations in the regions are so rare that one young man he knows used Virgin trains for commuting between Warrington and Preston for two years and never got caught. The same is true, of course, of south London, where I have made several  journeys recently and there is no doubt that it is treated as a free railway by many local people.

 

Northern angst

 

Meanwhile, a rather more important issue is brewing in the North. There is widespread fury among passengers about the removal of off-peak tickets for journeys in the evening peak. As Barry Doe suggests, this may not even be legal and this may be challenged, but in the meantime my friends in the North report that traffic has been very badly affected.  People going into the centre of Manchester and Leeds for a night out have been deterred by the high cost of fares and this has reduced the numbers using what are contra-flow services, precisely the sort of market that train operators want to capture.  As one of them put it, ‘the guys who devised this idea in the Department for Transport are clearly not economists . The effect stretches way beyond the railways, and has had an impact on the whole night time economy (which I can say from my recent three day stay in Manchester before the change was introduced is booming).

As my Northern friends point out, it is amazing that the Chancellor, a rare Tory northern MP, talks about boosting jobs in the north at the same time as allowing through this change which is so damaging to many local interests.

This change, hastily brought in by Abellio under pressure from government which wants to see a reduction in the subsidies going to Northern, will have to be written into the new franchise which is due to start in February 2016 but there is enormous pressure for the change to be scrapped.  There is therefore, a real battle brewing over it and northern MPs should get together to press for the policy’s reversal by highlighting the contradictory nature of government policy.

 

 

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