Readers in Kent can hardly fail to be aware that Eurostar services are currently not calling at Ebbsfleet or Ashford. Services were reduced to a bare minimum during the pandemic, but have been gradually increasing since. However, they are not yet back to their pre-pandemic level, and the international terminals at Ebbsfleet and Ashford stand empty, depriving travellers from a wide swathe of south east England of easy access to Eurostar and mainland Europe.
No support for Eurostar during the pandemic
This caught the eye of the Transport Select Committee, whose then Chair, Huw Merriman, is MP for Battle and Bexhill. The Committee asked Eurostar for an explanation. At the end of September, Jacques Damas, the Chief Executive of Eurostar, wrote to the Select Committee to explain why. He is about to leave the company, so perhaps felt freer to speak than he might have been previously. He highlighted a number of reasons, including the disgraceful decision not to provide financial support for Eurostar during the pandemic, in contrast to that provided for its airline competitors.
Eurostar seems to have been the victim of an unbelievably petty attitude by the UK government, who wanted to score some cheap populist shots by refusing to provide funding because the company is majority owned by the French SNCF (ignoring, as M. Damas pointed out, that many competitor airlines also have overseas shareholdings). Eurostar was able to obtain commercial funding, but this is at higher rates of interest than that offered to the airlines, and so the company is still in significant debt, and has to concentrate on maximising its revenue to service this.
Brexit border checks reduces processing numbers
But M. Damas also mentioned Brexit as a reason for not being able to reinstate a full pre-pandemic timetable including calls at Ebbsfleet and Ashford. Critically, he explained that the requirement for more stringent border checks following Brexit has reduced the number of passengers who can be processed through St Pancras International station. Pre-Brexit, the station could manage 2,200 passengers per hour. Now it is only 1,500 passengers per hour. Stamping a passport may only add a short time for an individual passenger (he referred to an additional 15 seconds), but those extra seconds soon add up with a large number of people.
A fully-loaded Eurostar train can carry 900 passengers, so passengers for more than one train in any single hour could easily overwhelm the station’s ability to cope. M. Damas concluded by saying that it was only because Eurostar had deliberately limited its train service that ‘we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports’.
No EuroDisney or other popular services either
And all of this is happening at a time when demand for travel has returned (leisure strongly, business less so), as anyone who travelled through an airport during the summer will have noticed. Reopening the stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford would worsen the situation, as it would take further border police away from St Pancras. There also seems little chance of the popular services to EuroDisney, and to Lyon and the South of France being reinstated any time soon, and the ski train to the French Alps is now only run as part of a package holiday deal.
Put simply, Eurostar is unable to run a service to match the demand on offer because of the impact of the more stringent border controls, and a need to concentrate on its core markets. Like every transport operator, Eurostar was severely affected by the pandemic, but was disgracefully neglected by a government more interested in cheap political point scoring, and its ability to recover from these effects is being severely hampered by these additional requirements.
Eurostar, most environmentally friendly travelling
Eurostar isn’t an essential service, but it is very useful, and nice to have. And in an era when the need to tackle climate change is becoming ever more urgent, restricting the most environmentally-friendly way of travelling between the UK and mainland Europe seems particularly short sighted. It makes me angry that such a useful service should be sacrificed on the altar of ideology, for the most threadbare of reasons, and with no discernible benefits. But in truth, this is no different to the small businesses finding it uneconomic to sell to mainland Europe, fishermen unable to sell their catch, or firms unable to recruit staff to fill vacancies. All are casualties of Brexit, and perhaps difficulties in travelling are just another part of the whole sorry spectacle.
Cooperation as against cutting ourselves off
All the more reason then to campaign for a closer relationship with the EU. Travel to our nearest neighbours shouldn’t have these sorts of inconveniences. Would it be possible to negotiate a bespoke travel deal, or is there a halfway house short of full freedom of movement? Who knows, but there is no reason for not trying. Or should we be considering measures such as exit checks as a way of responding to anxieties about a lack of knowledge of who is travelling to and from the country? Exit checks were standard practice until 1998, and were then reintroduced in 2015 based on information collected from bookings by carriers, but then stopped in 2016 as explained in a 2017 government report which actually recommends they should be reinstated. Could this be the answer to the passport stamping congestion: shift the data collection responsibility back to the carriers who are then required to send it to the government ISA database? Or could this be a way of allowing a greater measure of free movement by making it easier to know who is and isn’t staying over their allotted time, and addressing concerns about a lack of control over immigration?
The reinstatement of what we enjoyed for several decades could be a tangible win for the wider population, showing that cooperation is far better than trying to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.