Pressure is mounting on the UK Government to step in and provide further financial support to Eurostar, the open-access operator that provides services from London to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Although the UK sold its stake in the cross-channel operator in 2015, leaving French state railway company SNCF as the largest shareholder at 55%, there are still many Eurostar employees based in the UK, including the workforce of the depot at Temple Mills.
Discussions are taking place between the UK Government and the TSSA union on how staff, and the company, can best be helped. TSSA general secretary Manual Cortes said: “The focus now must be on recovery, and we will do everything we can to ensure that Eurostar has a bright future.
“Ministers must pull out all the stops and work with us in this urgent task to safeguard Britain’s green gateway to Europe.
“Eurostar remains in a perilous situation but is far too important to fail. I know the company, and all our brilliant members, are ready to get back to a normal service as soon as it is safe to do so. The Treasury should make every effort to ensure that happens. No ifs, no buts.”
Eurostar currently has a monopoly on cross-channel passenger rail services. German state operator Deutsche Bahn (DB), which has an extensive high-speed rail network and several fleets of ICE (InterCity Express) trains, ran a train into St Pancras from Frankfurt in 2010. This was to promote a planned service of three return journeys (morning, lunchtime and evening) between Frankfurt and London via Cologne, Brussels and Lille.
DB planned to operate these new services using its Class 407 trains, being built by Siemens and due for delivery in 2011.
However, despite all the fanfare, the services never commenced and a DB ICE train hasn’t been seen at St Pancras since.
Nick Brooks, secretary general of ALLRAIL, the Alliance of Passenger Rail New Entrants and a representative of open-access operators throughout Europe, has reported on Deutsche Bahn’s current thinking.
In a session called “Intermodal collaboration for a seamless passenger experience” at the 10th International Rail Summit on 25 February 2021, DB’s head of long-distance international services, Marco Kampp, was posed the question: “Why did a German DB ICE high speed train visit London St Pancras station in October 2010 but then DB never started operating to and from the UK?”
His response, in front of many conference attendees (including the EU Commission), was: “There were too many technical difficulties.”
From earlier discussions, it would appear that these technical difficulties involved both the trains and arrangements for border checks.
DB planned to use two 200-metre-long trains, coupled together, for the service. Eurotunnel requires trains to be a minimum length – to ensure that at least some portion of a stranded train will be next to an emergency escape cross-tunnel – and that the train can be split in the middle if a technical problem occurred, allowing half of the train, with all of the passengers, to be driven out, away from danger. While the two coupled-together DB trains would be long enough, passengers wouldn’t be able to pass along the aisles from one train into the other, so they would neither be able to access the emergency tunnels nor move into the undamaged section of the train for retrieval.
In addition, DB planned to make cross-border checks – passports and customs – on board the train. However, the UK Government was apparently insisting that all passengers be disembarked at Lille and go through border checks there, adding a long delay to the ‘high-speed’ service.
Whatever the exact reason, DB obviously has no plans to start a UK/Europe service, leaving Eurostar with a monopoly, hence the importance of a rescue.
To further complicate matters, ALLRAIL has pointed out that any government that support Eurostrar – an open access operator – would be morally obliged also to support other open-access rail operators in its territory, which in the UK would be Heathrow Express, Hull Trains and Grand Central.
Once Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed, the UK will need its rail connection to Europe, so it is essential that the sole operator survives the pandemic. Perhaps the UK should take back a stake, in return for finance, and once again have a say in the provision of cross-border services.