Call for rail firms to compete with Eurostar as service suffers

Some routes from London to the continent have not returned to service since the pandemic, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Eurostar at St Pancras Station and (inset) the EU's Adina Vălean (credit Christophe Licoppe/European Union)
Eurostar at St Pancras Station and (inset) the EU’s Adina Vălean (credit Christophe Licoppe/European Union)

Rival train companies could be set to compete against Eurostar for the first time after the European Union’s transport chief signalled her support for the idea.

In exclusive comments to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the EU’s Adina Vălean said the move had the potential to bring down fares and boost passenger numbers.

UK rail minister Huw Merriman had said last month that the government is looking to encourage competition on services from London to Paris, Brussels and other continental destinations. “The only way we’re actually going to bring prices down, get more people on, it’s getting more operators on there. And I think that’s my ambition for it,” he told parliament’s transport select committee.

But Merriman cautioned: “The difficulty is it’s not just down to this country because obviously it’s a route that goes abroad, but we are looking to set out some steps as to what we actually see is possible with that line.”

He has now been joined by European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean, who said that an increase in rail competition across the EU in recent years “has resulted in a better level of services, lower prices and a strong increase in passenger numbers”.

The Romanian politician added: “This experience shows that increased competition on lines operating through the Channel Tunnel could bring important benefits to passengers.”

Seb Dance, London’s deputy mayor for transport, appeared to also welcome the proposal. “It could be a good thing, absolutely. It depends how it operates obviously,” said Dance, who formerly represented London in the EU as a Labour member of the European Parliament.

“As a regular user of Eurostar in a previous guise, I can attest to the fundamental importance of the link with the rest of Europe.

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“It is a much more sustainable way of travelling obviously and it’s opened up travel opportunities for so many people.

“So as long as it provides a reliable, sustainable and affordable option for passengers, then wait and see, but obviously it’s a matter for the government to decide what that model might look like.”

Previous attempts at introducing competition on the line have been unsuccessful, with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and Spain’s Renfe both having made failed attempts over the last 15 years. The owner of the Channel Tunnel itself, Getlink, has also suggested in the past that it could run its own competitive train fleet.

Eurostar has meanwhile struggled since the pandemic, with its trains currently visiting just six of the 13 stations it served back in the summer of 2019. The firm did not benefit from the same Covid-19 bailout funding as other train companies in the UK, forcing it to take out loans at commercial rates, which it is now paying back.

International stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent, and at Calais, have been closed since March 2020, and Eurostar this year suspended its service to Disneyland Paris. Another route, which used to run from London to Marseille via Avignon and Lyon, was also lost during Covid.

“Of course there’s a number of factors at play here,” said Dance.

“The pandemic clearly had a huge impact but Brexit has clearly had a massive impact in terms of the additional time that it now takes for passengers to be processed.

“So I think there are real risks going forward and we just have to wait and see what the climate looks like, but the easier we make it for people, I think the better.”

Since Brexit, Eurostar has been forced to stamp passports in separate queues – a lengthy procedure which has forced services to deliberately depart with unfilled seats.

It was revealed in January that for services leaving Amsterdam, a maximum of 250 of 900 seats can now be filled due to the lack of processing space. Upcoming renovations at Amsterdam Centraal station will meanwhile further reduce the space available, which is expected to cause the closure of the Netherlands’ Eurostar route for almost a year from June 2024, unless a solution can be found.

Eurostar has been approached for comment.

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