Where did it all go wrong for Eurostar?
St Pancras International station is a study in positive cross-Channel relations. Walk through its vast, immaculate halls on a Friday night and you’ll witness French couples straight from the Eurostar, browsing slick designer shops while their English counterparts make for the boarding gates to do the same at the other end.
Despite Brexit, despite Covid restrictions and despite a love-hate relationship with our nearest neighbours, Tracey Emin’s neon sign spells it out from a prime position high above the rabble: “I want my time with you”.
Getting that time, however, is more difficult after a raft of post-pandemic route cancellations. These mean that, almost 30 years on, Eurostar’s departures board only features one more final destination for UK travellers than when it first launched: Amsterdam joined Paris, Lille and Brussels in 2018. Meanwhile, lingering border control issues have resulted in significantly lower passenger capacity than pre-pandemic.
Last week, the operator revealed a new look, prompted by a merger with another high-speed rail company, Thalys. Under the Eurostar name, the company will continue its services to Paris, Lille, Brussels, and Amsterdam (via Rotterdam) and travellers should be able to reach Cologne in just under four hours, though with a well-timed change in Brussels. But quite what it means for axed routes (including Disneyland Paris and Avignon) remains to be seen.
A brief history of the line
Back in 1994, Eurostar’s shiny new trains held the promise of easier and more civilised travel to mainland Europe with generous legroom, restriction-free luggage allowance, decent food and no need to schlep to an airport on the outskirts of town. But by the end of the year, the company was already significantly in the red, posting losses of around £925 million. It wouldn’t be until 2007, the same year that its services moved from London Waterloo to St Pancras International, that Eurostar finally turned a profit.
The company’s timing was out. A year after it started running, low-cost air travel took off with EasyJet’s first flights plying the skies between Luton and Edinburgh or Glasgow. Along with Ryanair and the rest, EasyJet’s network spread rapidly. The direction of the travel industry was so clear that Eurostar abandoned plans for “Nightstar” sleeper services from Edinburgh and Cardiff before they’d even started (the trains were sold to Via Rail and now run the route between Montreal and Halifax in Canada).
While low-cost routes knitted rapidly across European skies, Eurostar expanded at a snail’s pace. Its London-Paris and London-Brussels services proved to be out-and-out successes, taking an 80 per cent market share from the airlines. However, sending the company’s 18-carriage, 750-seater trains to less-popular destinations proved both commercially and logistically difficult.
With ambitious targets from the start, Eurostar aimed high but took a while to reach its potential. The company hoped to have 10 million passengers per year by 1998 but only met its target in 2013. By 2018, 11 million journeys per year were being made – but two years later the pandemic struck and Eurostar came perilously close to closure. With demand shrinking by 95 per cent, the company struggled to stay afloat, in part due to a spider’s web of governance that made it hard to access emergency funding.
Eurostar is currently based in England but the UK hasn’t had a stake in the company since 2015, when David Cameron presided over the sale of its 40 per cent share. Now, French state-owned SNCF owns 55 per cent, Belgium’s national rail provider SNCB has five per cent and the rest is held by a consortium made up of two companies: Canadian investment group CDPQ and Hermes Infrastructure.
Thus, when the rail company’s bosses asked the British government for help during the pandemic, then Transport Secretary Grant Schapps was able to answer that Eurostar “is not our company to rescue”. Meanwhile, airlines including Wizz Air, British Airways, Ryanair and EasyJet benefitted from the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility.
With the possibility of imminent closure, shareholders and lenders agreed a £250 million emergency refinancing deal in May 2021. In its wake, a streamlining of services led to the closure of summer routes to Avignon and Marseille in the South of France and a winter ski train to Moutiers, Aime-La-Plagne and Bourg St Maurice (though a similar train, operated as a charter and bookable as part of a package, continues to run).
In addition, Eurostar’s offering to Disneyland Paris will cease in June 2023. The company is currently focusing all its efforts on city-to-city services, with particular emphasis on the London-Amsterdam route, which stops in Rotterdam.
“We see huge potential for [this route], which is one of the busiest airline markets and on which we are seeing strong market share with just four services a day,” said a Eurostar spokesperson. “We have recently agreed to move to a larger space in Amsterdam Centraal station from 2025, which will allow us to increase capacity.”
Even this won’t be simple: lingering issues caused by Brexit mean that Eurostar is currently unable to run at full capacity. Speaking at a press conference last week, Eurostar CEO Gwendoline Cazenave explained that post-Brexit checks have added 30 per cent to each traveller’s processing time, forcing the operator to place passenger caps on the first services between London and Paris and from London to Brussels every day.
There’s further uncertainty about what impact the Schengen area Entry-Exit Scheme (EES) will have when it comes into play this autumn. Eurostar cites this as one of the reasons for axing departures from Ebbsfleet and Ashford (the Kent stations once pitched as key British stops) until at least 2024.
“Re-opening the intermediate stations (where demand and yields are much lower) would make things even worse as it would take away from London vital border police resources,” Eurostar’s then-CEO Jacques Damas told the UK’s Transport Select Committee in a letter last autumn. “The reality of traffic numbers is such that a police officer controls five to 10 times more passengers in our large terminals than in intermediate stations”.
In an attempt to make the introduction of the EES and the future Etias travel authorisation system as painless as possible for UK travellers, the company is working with the French authorities to add more (and upgraded) e-gates and also hopes to use biometric facial identification in the future. Space for processing passengers remains an issue at St Pancras but the company has transformed part of Arrivals into additional check-in space to ease crowding in the departure area.
A new era?
The merger with Thalys, which will see both companies operating under the Eurostar name, is being sold as a lifeline. “As Eurostar Group we will be more resilient to external shocks in the future,” a Eurostar spokesperson told The Telegraph. Meanwhile, Cazenove hopes that the new company will “become the backbone of sustainable high-speed rail in Europe”.
The plan is to have 30 million passengers across two networks by 2030 – but the percentage that will be travelling from the UK remains hazy. By October 2023, one single website and loyalty scheme for the merged companies should make it easier to book a rail holiday from a British starting point, something that currently remains frustratingly difficult.
“The merger offers the opportunity for better integration with fares and ticketing,” says Mark Smith of rail travel website The Man In Seat 61. But that’s where he thinks the benefits end. “A good thing from an economist’s point of view is that it offers the opportunity to redeploy Eurostars that can’t be used because of Brexit border checks onto the Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam routes to provide extra capacity. That’s of little use to Brits, however.”
One concern is that services from the UK to mainland Europe will be stripped back even further to make the route as profitable as possible. “They're not expanding the timetable back to what it was before the pandemic. And that in turn means that they're no longer going for low fares and growth,” says Smith. “They're going for the highest possible yield out of the seats that they can sell, which means high fares and fewer trains. Not good news for travellers at all.”
Though there are still bargain fares to be had (in November 2022, Eurostar ran a £29 ticket promotion on its London-Paris route, significantly less than the company’s launch ticket price of £47.50 each way), fewer services with largely higher fares make Eurostar less attractive, especially for travellers from outside London who have onward costs to add to their journeys.
In another blow, news that the HS2 line into central London may be delayed for several years means connection times from northern England remain longer than desired. In any case, the link between HS2 and Eurostar will never be seamless, with HS2 travellers disembarking at Euston and then having to make the 10-minute onward journey by foot to St Pancras (in 2014, a direct link to the latter was deemed “too expensive”).
Europe’s rail revolution
While the UK’s services to the Continent have been cut, the rest of Europe is enjoying a rail revolution. Austrian operator Nightjet’s burgeoning timetable includes journeys from Paris to Vienna and Amsterdam to Zurich, while European Sleeper’s Brussels-Berlin service starts in May 2023.
Luckily, these trains should all link up with Eurostar services from London, making rail travel across Europe easier for British travellers, too. That’s good news for the increasing number willing to take to the tracks to make their travel more sustainable.
Such was the demand for Eurostar’s axed ski train – which took holidaymakers to the Alpine resorts on a far easier journey than by air – that a collection of ski resort owners took matters into their own hands and chartered their own. “Since launching in September 2022, we have been delighted by the response from the British skier,” said Guillaume de Marcillac, CEO of umbrella company Travelski. “They are travelling in the many thousands with us and their enthusiasm for the return of the ski train has been very encouraging”.
Smith suggests that other organisations could in theory run similar services to Disneyland Paris or the south of France, though stumbling blocks such as lack of access to peak-time schedules remain (the ski train now only runs overnight from London to France, despite having no sleeper cars). But if Eurostar’s increased fares and decreased timetable continue, there’s a legitimate concern that some UK passengers will be pushed back on to short-haul flights.
“Eurostar has discovered that you can price up quite high before people schlep to the airport for a London-Paris journey but there is no doubt that price influences people,” says Smith. “Once you start charging £100 return instead of £50 return for London-Paris, people start to think about flights”.
One tried-and-tested way to keep costs down on any route is to open it up to competition. However, prohibitive Channel Tunnel regulations and the high cost of using the stretch of high-speed track between St Pancras and the tunnel have so far proved off-putting to operators. HS1, owner of this section of track, has voiced support for a London-Bordeaux service but has so far been unable to find anyone to run it.
“What with the capacity issue at St. Pancras and the fact that you need specialised trains to go through the tunnel (and Eurostar are the only people with those trains), it’s very difficult to compete,” says Smith. “And if you were thinking of competing and you’ve got a choice of one train to London or another route entirely, the other route will get you just as much money with much lower costs and fewer logistical difficulties. So why would you go to London?”.