Eurostar is too busy paying its debts from the pandemic period to resume stopping at Ashford International station anytime soon. That was the gist of what the Joint Transportation Board of councillors at Ashford heard from the General Secretary of the Eurostar group, Gareth.
During the 18 months of the pandemic Eurostar lost 97% of its revenue. There was no subsidy from UK government which instead subsidized airlines with £7bn. Eurostar had to borrow heavily from commercial banks, and now it has to pay back those debts. This means it must concentrate on the routes which make the most money with best use the staff and the resources. This means concentrating on their core city-to-city routes of London to Paris or Brussels.
Although there is a loyal customer base in Ashford, especially of families going to Disneyland, this amounts to only 3% of total Eurostar UK customers. A border official at St.Pancras can process through-put of customers checked at 10 to one at Ashford. They have to ration border capacity and place the staff at the most lucrative routes. There will soon be the added problem of the EES passport checks for all non-EU passengers from non-visa countries (ie UK nationals entering the EU).
What Eurostar will do is review the situation in late 2024 when the EES implementation has begun, and at that point see if it will be worth their while to resume Ashford services in 2025. Meanwhile, they are busy with their merger with Thalys (the Belgian High Speed train). The Eurostar trains from St. Pancras are now running at full capacity.
Petition signed by 30,000 to resume service at Ashford
Bushra Akhtar, on behalf of the group of Ashford residents that has organized a petition of Kent residents to get Eurostar to stop at the International station again, gave a brief speech pointing out that 30,000 people had now signed. Many people are inconvenienced by Eurostar no longer stopping in Kent. The group wants to know from the Board if there is anything they can do to help the case. Another speech was made from East Kent for Europe pointing out that local-to-local trains, either chartered or with group bookings would assist community links across the Channel, with groups such as sports teams, choirs and battlefield tours.
The questions that came from Councillors were:
- Could we have one train from Ashford to the Paris Olympics, as that is before EES comes in?
Answer: Eurostar can fill its trains better in London and pay off its debts quicker
- Does Eurostar have an exclusive contract to use Ashford station?
Answer: No, there is open access. Any competitor may negotiate with HS1, owner of Ashford International station
- If we are seeking a competitor to run trains through the tunnel, which trains are allowed?
Only the Siemens 373 and 374 trains run by Eurostar are allowed so far. These trains are long enough to get out of the tunnel in the event of fire within the prescribed time, and the staff have to be trained in evacuation procedures.
Additional costs for competitors
HS1 track charges are higher than that of other high speed rail tracks, but the extra charge for getting into Ashford station is not much more. The British company that used to own part of HS1 was sold to foreign investors ( with Gareth’s help) for some £2bn which is a debt the investors are still paying off to lenders.
A competitor would face the extra cost of train staff and border booths at the station.
So, amid this tale of huge debts, and ruthless cost calculation, will the arguments of potential passengers carry any weight? Those who signed the petition will be pleased to hear that Eurostar top management did take notice and discussed it at a recent meeting.
But their answer is unchanged: a review at the end of 2024. Our conclusion is: for the good of Kent, time to find another company able to run trains through the Eurotunnel.