First Brexit, then Covid: can Eurostar get back on track?

In an office near St Pancras ­station, Jacques Damas is holding a train magazine and preparing for a train journey. The 63-year-old chief executive of Eurostar has worked in railways for his entire career.

But if you suggest that he might be passionate about trains, he seems almost affronted. “I do not have a private [toy train] network in my house! I’m not in this category. For me, you must not have a personal passion, which becomes an obstacle to reality.”

When Eurostar recruits staff, it is wary of applicants who are train enthusiasts. “A good railwayman is someone who evolves,” says Damas, an angular, grey-haired and sometimes theatrical Frenchman. “Those who are absolutely passionate about the last century — no, we are no longer in steam trains.”

This tension between passion and practicality — dream and reality — lies at the heart of Eurostar. It is summed up by the 20-metre-long Tracey Emin neon artwork that hangs at St Pancras, its London terminus: the message, “I Want My Time with You”, is both romantic and demanding.

When Eurostar opened in 1994, the French newspaper Le Figaro declared “the end of British insularity”. For couples who got engaged by the Eiffel Tower, MEPs who shuttled to Brussels, or bankers who came the other way, the service reshaped their idea of Europe.

Chief executive Jacques Damas: ‘The French government says “Allez voir le gouvernement britannique.” Then you go to the UK. “Oh, Eurostar, it is a company that [mostly] belongs to the French railways” . . . I’m fed up with both’ © Kemka Ajoku

Eurostar reclaimed train travel from the commuters and the spotters. It represents the best of European integration — a French-style railway, a British corporate structure and mostly German trains. It connects four capital cities through the railway tunnel with the longest undersea portion in the world.

A young Britney Spears thought taking the underwater train was “about the coolest thing we’d ever done”, according to her then assistant. Some first-time passengers still ask if they’ll see fish, or so the company claims.

Yet Eurostar has been a newcomer on an old continent, hampered at every turn by customs posts, safety rules and incompatible signalling systems. It took 24 years to start a direct service from London to Amsterdam and even then ­passengers initially had to disembark on the return leg for border checks. Politics has played its part too. “We built this tunnel and then we did Brexit. A bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?” says Christian Wolmar, a British transport writer.

Following the Brexit deal, many British workers need laborious visas and permits to enter the EU. Holidaymakers must stand in the “non-EU” border lane and can’t carry meat, dairy or, unless they have a phytosanitary certificate, most fresh fruit. “What is it, the Brexit?” asks Damas. “It is a willingness to say ‘When we are at home, we decide what we want.’ But it is not at all ‘We are going to stay at home.’” I can’t believe that!”

View from a Eurostar train at the St Pancras terminus in London
‘You would have interesting times, interesting conversations, bump into Eric Cantona on your way home,’ says cross-Channel commuter Sarah Schijen. ‘The Eurostar reinforced that Britain was part of Europe’ © Kemka Ajoku

If Brexit is a permanent speed bump, coronavirus is an earthquake. Eurostar’s passenger numbers have fallen 95 per cent. Its cathedral-like shed at St Pancras — once the largest enclosed space in the world — stands almost deserted.

When I visited in mid-February, instead of carrying 30,000 people a day, Eurostar was carrying only about 500. One man remonstrated after being told he lacked a certificate proving essential travel. A staff member tried jollying passengers, while conceding: “There’s a lot of fear.” Eurostar’s chief executive left in September, with Damas drafted in as an interim replacement.

Eurostar is losing in the region of £500m a year. In the time it will take you to read this article, it will lose perhaps £20,000. For the first time in its history, there may be no light at the end of the tunnel. If travel restrictions are not lifted and no state support is forthcoming, the operator says it will run out of cash possibly by June, certainly over the summer. Its uniqueness has become a weakness.

“You go to the French government, you say, ‘Eurostar needs financial support.’ The response is: ‘Eurostar, Eurostar, what is that, Eurostar? Oh yes, it is a company that is based in the UK, allez voir le gouvernement britannique,’” says Damas. “Then you go to the UK. ‘Eurostar, Eurostar, what is that? Oh, you mean Eurostar, it is a company that [mostly] belongs to the French railways’ . . . I’m fed up with both governments. [I have told the UK ambassador in Paris and the French ambassador in London:] stop your stupidities.”

A few observers (including the FT’s Lex column) have suggested that Eurostar should be allowed to go bust: another operator would emerge from its ashes. Most disagree, arguing that this would derail high-speed services for years. Eurostar’s trains could be sold off; its bilingual drivers, who undergo 18 months of training, could dissipate into the job market.

“You can’t imagine being so stupid as to let it collapse. But we live in a world where stupid happens,” says Mark Smith, a former rail regulator who runs the website The Man in Seat 61.

Chart showing Eurostar’s journey to more passengers and profit

Damas insists that, because of its history, “Eurostar will not collapse . . . [François] Mitterrand is no longer here, [Jacques] Chirac is no longer here, but the Queen is still here. The Queen is our best protective mother! We will get this money. Because I am ready to go to the Queen.”

Yet, even if it survives, Eurostar might be licking its wounds — at precisely the time that it is meant to be pioneering a low-carbon future. Travelling from London to Paris by train saves 90 per cent of the greenhouse gases of going by plane. So high-speed rail is in fashion, in theory. In the US, President Biden, a longtime train commuter, has promised a “second great railroad revolution”. The EU has designated 2021 the year of rail.

Eurostar could become part of a new European high-speed rail network, luring businesspeople and holidaymakers away from budget airlines. Is this the end of Eurostar, the beginning of a new golden age of train travel, or both?

The golden age of rail is a phrase used imprecisely, but it almost always refers to a time before the rise of air travel and mass car ownership. A cross-Channel train was proposed at various points, and Queen Victoria welcomed it as an antidote to her seasickness. The plan foundered in the 1880s primarily on security grounds: why should Britain, the great naval power, give up its island status? Only a century later, with the risk of invasion diminished, did Britain agree to a train running from London to Paris on a single gauge.

Eurostar went against the current. Luxury trains — with Agatha Christie-style dining cars — were being shunted aside by planes. The EU was liberalising its air industry. A year after the Channel Tunnel opened, a continental network of first-class trains called the Trans Europe Express closed and easyJet was founded.

Eurotunnel forecast that at least 15 million people would ride Eurostar in its first year, rising to 25 million a decade later. This proved pie in the sky. Yet in 2019 the service hit a record 11 million passengers, comprising nearly 80 per cent of air and rail travel from London to Paris and Brussels.

This success is built on speed. Britain’s first (and so far only) high-speed line cut the journey from London to Paris to two hours and 16 minutes. It is quicker for a Londoner to travel by train to Paris than to Norwich. A Parisian can reach Cambridge almost as fast as Marseille. Nearly 90 per cent of Eurostar trains arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. EasyJet, Air France and British Airways hover around 75 per cent.

While trains get quicker, airports have become more cumbersome, especially since 9/11. At St Pancras, the Eurostar gate is a hundred metres or so from the Tube exit. In 10 steps, you are through security. In another 20, you are through passport control. Walk up a motorised ramp and you are on the platform. You don’t have to take off your shoes or breathe in duty-free perfume. When the train departs, the noise is barely louder than a boiling kettle. “Even after 22 years, I still have my heart beating when the train leaves,” says Dorette Ngo Bayiha, a station manager at St Pancras.

When train travel is good, it is very good. You can read, work or stream TV. You can reach city ­centres from which low-cost airlines are banished. A cheap flight can leave you feeling like a shaken bottle of Coke. At its best, Eurostar leaves you feeling like an aerated glass of red wine.

“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought,” wrote the philosopher Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel. “[The views move] quickly enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.”

Station manager Dorette Ngo Bayiha: ‘Even after 22 years, I still have my heart beating when the train leaves’
Station manager Dorette Ngo Bayiha: ‘Even after 22 years, I still have my heart beating when the train leaves’ © Kemka Ajoku

This only half-applies to Eurostar, which travels at up to 300km/h. Farmhouses and towns flash by. The train moves too fast for the human eye to react to trackside beacons, so signals appear on electronic panels in the driver’s cab. But there is smoothness. The sharp gradients as the train passes the tunnels and viaducts into Kent are imperceptible.

“We’re probably the largest and fastest rollercoaster you’ll ever come across,” says Adrian Gordon, a driver. The Tunnel is over as soon as it begins. “Our mission is never to stop in the Tunnel. People aren’t comfortable in tunnels.”

For those who rely on Eurostar, it is irreplaceable. “I am in a nine-year relationship, thanks to the Eurostar. To be very honest, without the Eurostar it might not have lasted,” is one, not uncommon, account.

Sarah Schijen, a Londoner, started cross-Channel commuting when her wife took a job at Hermès in Paris. “It was that constant tension of ‘how do you get the best of Paris and London in one place?’ and you can’t, so it’s the Eurostar,” she says.

“I would have my tickets lined up for the next three or four months,” says Schijen. “That means you know where you’re going to be every weekend.” On board, there was a shared solidarity between regular customers. “Everyone just understands that you’re trying to make something work.”

Schijen learnt to sit in the middle of the carriage, where it’s warmer, and to locate the elusive button that extends the bottom of the seat. ­Everyone wants “Carte Blanche”, which allows you to turn up just 10 minutes before departure but for which you must make at least 32 journeys (or spend £2,400) a year.

Eurostar driver Adrian Gordon
Eurostar driver Adrian Gordon. The company’s drivers are bilingual and their training takes 18 months © Kemka Ajoku

Amid the mundanity, Schijen says, “You would just have interesting times, interesting conversations, bump into Eric Cantona on your way home . . . It was so much fun. I actually do miss it — I miss commuting. The Eurostar reinforced that Britain was part of Europe.”

When you fly, your mind makes no connection between the point of destination and arrival. But when you take the train, and see the landscape in transition, the two places become intertwined. An island mentality struggles to survive. Of course, Eurostar travellers, being disproportionately wealthy, educated Londoners, were never natural Brexiters anyway.

The flip side is that, on Eurostar, where different nationalities are thrown together, national differences are often magnified.

“If there is a delay [to a service], the first complaining are the French passengers,” a (Spanish) train manager told me. Eurostar’s former chief executive once said that his British employees would delegate more easily, while his French employees liked to plan 25 years ahead. He also admitted that staff’s tendency to attribute disagreements to national stereotypes disguised genuine conflicts.

Similarly, Eurostar’s onboard menus — overseen by the chef Raymond Blanc — mix different European elements, though there are limits. It is assumed that French customers will not put up with English sparkling wine. An attempt to mark the opening of the Amsterdam route by incorporating Dutch liquorice into dishes didn’t please anyone. Eurostar is trialling a new, longer glass that will lie horizontally on premier customers’ trays and will allow wine aromas to rise. Customers might prioritise reliable WiFi.

Eurostar has been mostly profitable since 2009. In 2019, revenues were around £1bn. Operating profits were £92m — £8 per passenger.

Those who have worked at Eurostar emphasise that it is no lethargic state-run stereotype, even though it is 55 per cent owned by French railways SNCF and 5 per cent by the Belgian railways SNCB. It is part of a political project, which has succeeded until now by being unpolitical.

In 2010, it ordered 10 trains from Germany’s Siemens, rather than France’s national champion Alstom. Two SNCF board members resigned and legal action ensued. But Eurostar persevered and ordered seven more Siemens trains. It is now detached from the British government, which in 2015 sold its 40 per cent stake to a consortium of pension funds for £757m.

In one way, however, Eurostar remains highly political. Unlike many rail operators, it does not have exclusive franchises. Its profitability hinges on limiting competition.

The business lounge at St Pancras
The business lounge at St Pancras.­ A passenger must make at least 32 journeys a year — or spend £2,400 — to gain a coveted ‘Carte Blanche’, which allows them to turn up 10 minutes before departure © Kemka Ajoku

Independent rail companies accuse Eurostar of scrapping its old trains so that other operators can’t buy them. Eurostar says it couldn’t find a buyer. (To pass through the Tunnel, trains must be 400 metres long, twice the usual high-speed length, to facilitate escape in case of fire. Each Siemens train can carry about 900 passengers, as many as two Jumbo Jets.)

Even Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, Europe’s largest rail company, has failed to take a piece of the market. In 2009 it mused about buying a stake in Eurostar but received a predictable response from the French. A year later it ran a train to St Pancras, a test for a regular service by the 2012 Olympics.

But the project stalled. “It became clear that the French government did not want any competition to go through that tunnel,” says Chris Loder, a Tory MP who led Deutsche Bahn’s project to reach London. Deutsche Bahn says a UK-Germany rail route is “attractive for customers” but that none of its trains can currently handle the three signalling systems of Germany, France and Belgium.

Customers complain that Eurostar charges high prices and offers little flexibility. Had Deutsche Bahn taken the plunge, fares would certainly be cheaper. Customers would have more destinations, too. Eurostar runs a few trains to Marseille, and to the Alps in winter. But only the busiest routes merit a 900-seat service. Deutsche Bahn’s plan was to have a train from London that separated at Brussels, with the front half going to Cologne and Frankfurt and the back half to Amsterdam.

“What Eurostar needs is a bit of competition,” says Tony Berkeley, a member of the House of Lords, who worked for Eurotunnel during its construction. “It could have grown a good deal more.”

Wolmar says Eurostar has lacked the “go-getting attitude” to expand. “Put [Ryanair chief executive] Michael O’Leary in charge and he’d say, ‘Fuck you lot — we’re doing this.’”

Between 1997 and 2017, passenger numbers at UK airports doubled. Before the pandemic struck, the Department for Transport forecast an increase of a further 50 per cent by 2050.

Sadly, flying is, to quote the Committee on Climate Change watchdog, “the quickest and cheapest way for a consumer to increase their carbon footprint”. A return flight from London to New York emits as much carbon as heating the average home for a year.

The CCC says the UK will have to limit the rise in passenger numbers to just 25 per cent, if it’s to be net zero by 2050. Other environmentalists think even that is too generous, relying on sucking emissions out of the air. Instead, “You need to squeeze demand on short-haul air routes,” says Leo Murray, a campaigner.

Flying is generally cheaper, not least because airlines pay no fuel tax or track access charges. For every £79 Eurostar ticket, Channel Tunnel operator Getlink ends up with nearly £20. Track owners on both sides take a further £15. These costs include electricity as well as access. High-speed track access charges are almost twice as high in the UK as in any EU country.

But where high-speed rail is convenient, it knocks airlines out of the market. Flights between London and Paris more than halved between 1996 and 2019 — from 100 a day to 46. A high-speed train service between Madrid and Barcelona opened in 2008; the number of air travellers between the two cities halved over the following decade, according to data from analysts OAG.

Line chart of Scheduled airline seats between Madrid and Barcelona (million) showing The high-speed rail link between Barcelona and Madrid reduced flights between these cities

Eurostar has long made a virtue of its green credentials. A passenger travelling to Paris emits less carbon than a car driving from central London to Heathrow, it says. Eurostar plans to ditch fossil fuels by 2030, and probably sooner, via contracts with track owners that supply its electricity. (It is not persuaded by carbon offsets.)

Once travellers were thought to tolerate train journeys of up to three hours. Climate awareness may have raised this threshold. London-Amsterdam is four hours and nine minutes by train. Before the pandemic, there were up to 55 flights a day and Eurostar had less than 10 per cent of the market. When travel restrictions are lifted, it hopes to gain ground rapidly. “I don’t think they will have any problem filling those trains, once we get the pandemic behind us,” says Smith of The Man in Seat 61.

Column chart of Air traffic to/from London: passengers (million) to selected destinations also served by Eurostar, 2019 showing Potential for the Eurostar Amsterdam route to replace flights

Airlines, battered by the pandemic, may trim less profitable routes. Travellers may be reluctant to mingle at large airports (though trains will have risks too). And airports may be legally constrained: the French government has cancelled the expansion of Charles de Gaulle, citing climate change, and pushed Air France to reduce domestic flights by 40 per cent, in exchange for a coronavirus bailout. Meanwhile, Gare du Nord, the rather grotty Eurostar terminus, is due to be renovated before the 2024 Olympics.

The problem is that flights under 500km account for only 5 per cent of the UK’s aviation emissions. The biggest role that high-speed rail can play in fighting climate change is therefore to take demand from long-haul flights. Would holidaying Britons swap Australia for Austria? Would businesspeople take the scenic route to Germany, especially if climate-conscious employers restricted flights or offered extra leave? 

“We should be accessing Europe by train, not plane. I think Frankfurt [which is five hours and 29 minutes from London] is realistic. You could get up to nine or 10 hours by train,” says Loder, the Tory MP. “But the focus on the customer has got to change. They’re going to have to go back to what the railway once felt like, where the experience was enjoyable.” That means no more “ironing-board seats” and the “hideous fluorescent tubes everywhere”.

Ironically, the economic case for building the UK’s second high-speed line, HS2, relied on the premise that time on today’s slower trains is wasted: every hour saved by high-speed trains could be used for productive work. But the growth of high-speed rail across Europe may rely on the calculation that extra hours on the train are not wasted — they can be working time. The future is not faster trains, but more patient passengers.

A new German scheme envisages a high-speed train network — Trans Europe Express 2.0 — run by a single company. Proposed routes include Amsterdam to Rome, Berlin to Barcelona and Brussels to Warsaw. The possibility of night trains is opening up. SNCF, meanwhile, plans to merge Eurostar with its high-speed service Thalys in a joint venture called “Green Speed”. Eurostar doesn’t run trains from Paris to Amsterdam; Thalys does. Green Speed would allow passengers to buy a single ticket across Eurostar and TGV services.

“SNCF love empire-building, even if they haven’t got any money,” says Berkeley. “They’ll try to beat the Germans at their own game.”

Eurostar, however, is not a core part of the German proposal. Even for its owners, SNCF, it can be an afterthought: SNCF has more than 270,000 employees, Eurostar has fewer than 2,000. “It should have a big part of a European project. Instead, it’s a branch line from Calais,” says Wolmar.

Eurostar is also disconnected from HS2, whose London terminus will be Euston, not St Pancras. Taking it to St Pancras would have increased costs by an estimated £700m and disrupted other rail lines. Instead, passengers will walk 750 metres down the road — less seamless than an airport.

For now Eurostar faces more urgent problems. It has borrowed £350m from banks to stay afloat; its shareholders have put in another £100m. Three-quarters of its staff are furloughed. Coronavirus hasn’t just delayed the expansion of ­high-speed rail, it’s changed the case. Business travel may have shrunk permanently.

Climate awareness may prompt more passengers to consider travelling longer distances by rail © Kemka Ajoku

Hopes of a 2021 rebound evaporated months ago. “We all woke up for the year and said, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’” says one person involved. “But you can’t just chop everything — because when things recover, you need to be ready to bounce back.”

Some international travel restrictions are likely to remain through the summer. To break even, Eurostar needs to hit half its 2019 passenger numbers. It wants the UK to offer loan guarantees and the EU governments to open their borders. UK transport secretary Grant Shapps has said he is “very keen for Eurostar to survive”, adding that it would be for France to “naturally . . . lead” any deal. The French have indicated they will support SNCF but the European Commission could impose conditions to help competition.

As Damas boards the one daily train that currently runs to Paris, he strikes a tranquil note. “Brexit — it’s just an episode.” Coronavirus “is just nothing in the history”. Eurostar’s “roots are deep. Therefore the future will be enormous.”

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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