Eurotunnel's traffic speeds up

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

Transport Correspondent

Eurotunnel announced its most promising figures for traffic through the tunnel so far, with an increase of 24 per cent in cars between May and June, but admitted it was still well below the levels projected in its May 1994 rights issue announcement.

In June, the Le Shuttle tourist service for cars broke the 100,000 monthly figure for the first time, with 100,534 cars. There were 32,657 lorries, an increase of 15 per cent on May.

The figures will cheer shareholders after much adverse publicity resulting from a series of recent breakdowns to Le Shuttle and Eurostar services.

However, John Noulton, Eurotunnel's chief spokesman, admitted the company was still a long way behind the May 1994 projections: "The build-up of services, the ironing out of technical glitches and the sheer scale of the task all proved tougher than we originally envisaged." The company hoped it would begin meeting the projections "some time in 1996".

Stena Sealink, one of Eurotunnel's main ferry rivals, immediately tried to pour cold water on Eurotunnel's figures by issuing its own indicatiins that, of the short sea cross-Channel tourist vehicle market, P&O had a 43.4 per cent share, followed by Stena with 27.1 per cent, Eurotunnel with 23.8 per cent and Hoverspeed with 5.7 per cent.

On freight, Eurotunnel was also third with 27 per cent, behind Stena on 34 per cent and P&O with 39 per cent.

In preparation for the summer, which will pose the biggest financial and operational test so far for the tunnel, Eurotunnel is increasing the frequency of its tourist shuttles to three an hour in each direction with four at peak times. For lorries, a fourth hourly service will also be introduced at peak times.

Mr Noulton said the extension to four departures for freight was more than originally had been envisaged: "We never thought we would need four freight departures per hour. That shows we have been capturing business not only from the ferries but also from air cargo."

Mr Noulton said some express carriers were using the Shuttle instead of air freight because of the greater reliability and the ability to avoid transhipment, and that freight was being drawn to the short route across the Channel by the existence of the tunnel: "We have seen a remarkable concentration on the Dover/Folkestone to Calais route, which is obviously music to our ears."

Business on the tourist shuttle, which was the last of the tunnel services to come into operation, has been slow to build up, with 452,206 cars in the first six months of the year.

Despite concern from the public about the lack of a booking service, Mr Noulton said he was confident Eurotunnel could handle the expected rush when schools break up later this month: "We will, if necessary, advise people to use the ferries if delays are expected to be considerable, but, frankly, we will be delighted if we are full."

Mr Noulton said there were strong indications that there was a much larger growth overall in total cross-Channel carriage than expected.

"We have created a whole new market, much larger than anticipated," he said.

There had been considerable discounting by the ferries and, to a lesser extent, by Eurotunnel, and Eurotunnel expects that some of the surplus capacity will be shaken out.

Eurotunnel would like to see its two biggest rivals, P&O and Stena, merge. A merger would reduce competition but so far the Government has resisted all attempts at co-operation between the two.

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