Passengers are complaining. The queues at St Pancras are now intolerable. The lines stretch back into the main hall. It is like an airport with the slow shuffle towards the security kiosks. Then, once you are through that, you go to the departure lounge. However, there is not enough seating for the waiting passengers (see picture above taken this month). Because you have to check in 90 minutes before the train starts, one can be stuck standing in this waiting room for an hour. Unless, that is, one is white-haired and venerable, in which case one is usually offered a seat by someone younger and fitter.
Why travel by Eurostar?
Why travel by Eurostar, then? Wouldn’t it be better just to get a low-cost flight? Eurostar tickets have always been more expensive than the low-cost flights to European destinations. But when you tot up the cost of getting to the airport, by either train, coach, taxi or car, the totals get more equal. There is also the matter of luggage. The low-cost air carriers offer the bare minimum of one bag and charge heavily for any excess, whereas train travel has always been more relaxed about luggage (even if they don’t always provide enough spaces for it to be stacked).
Intercity train travel has the advantage of taking you to a station situated in the centre of the city, not on the outskirts like an airport, where a quick flight may then necessitate tiresome extra travel through the rush hour congestion. So, for the last two decades, many have loved to travel across the Channel by Eurostar, with many trains a day from St. Pancras to Paris, Brussels, and even more recently to Amsterdam.
Cuts to services
But now they are cutting services, not just comforts in the St Pancras waiting area. The train no longer stops at Ebbsfleet or Ashford International. They have cut the holiday train to Disneyland, and to the South of France via Lyons, and the ski train. People in Kent are complaining bitterly that they have to travel up to St Pancras on the HS1 only to go back down again with Eurostar.
Eurostar, now majority owned by the French State rail company SNCF, has just merged with Thalys, a high-speed train operator in France and Belgium, and is not much interested in improving the cross-Channel service. The British sold their share of the Eurostar investment in 2015. When Covid struck, HM Government subsidised the low-cost air carriers, but ignored Eurostar, as it was owned mostly by the French. The French Government did bail out the company in 2021, and now its debt at the end of 2022 stands at €964m.
How is the newly regrouped train operator planning to recoup these losses and repay the debt? They plan to increase passenger numbers on their high-speed trains from the 14.8m carried in 2022 to 30m by 2030. The last full year before Covid, Eurostar carried 11.1m passengers, and Thalys 7.9m. In 2022, Eurostar carried 8.3m passengers and Thalys 6.5m.
Eurostar does take 80% of the passengers between London and Paris and between London and Amsterdam, beating the low-cost air carriers on these routes.
UK slow to shift from flying
But we all know that there has to be a shift away from flying if we are to reach net zero targets and stop climate change. Recent research commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) shows that rail travel has even lower carbon emissions than previously thought. A new calculating tool using seven sets of data variables shows that the emissions per passenger on the Kings Cross to Edinburgh route were half the previous estimate (12.5 kg/CO2e vs. 24 kg/CO2e), which is 10 times lower than a car travelling this route, and 13 times lower than a flight.
President Macron’s government is active in making policies that favour rail. For example, public servants are not refunded for flights if there is a viable TGV (high-speed) rail option. The UK is tardy with policy-making to shift passengers away from cars and aeroplanes. Perhaps they sense that it is not a vote-winner. Rail delivery firms even had to lobby the UK government recently about the delays to the expected legislation that would enable the “Great British Railway” to get going. It is rumoured that there is not even time on this Parliament’s schedule for the necessary legislation.
Meanwhile, across the Channel …
But across the Channel, they are getting busy with improving rail. Amsterdam is constructing a new station. Unfortunately, this might mean a year’s disruption to the very successful Eurostar services from there. But both Eurostar and the Dutch government are actively seeking a solution to this.
Night sleeper trains are also popping up again all over Europe, but not from London. We will have to go via that crowded waiting room at St Pancras or the traffic queues at Dover to be able to catch them.
In Kent, we are wailing – when, oh when, will Eurostar service resume from Ashford International?