Eurostar ticket sales dropped 7 per cent in the first half as nearly 300,000 fewer people used the high-speed Channel Tunnel train service, the majority of them business travellers.
Overall, the company reported a 6 per cent fall in passenger numbers – from 4.63 million last year to 4.34 million this – which it blames on the problems in the banking sector. Although standard ticket sales actually rose by 4 per cent over the period, higher-margin business class travel dropped by a fifth, pushing revenues down to £342m, from £368m the year before.
Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, said: "The fact is that some of our biggest business clients are from the financial and banking sectors, and it follows that as they tighten their travel budgets, we, like the airlines, feel the effects."
But the company is upbeat, despite the recession. "As with all businesses in the transport sector, we have long acknowledged that we would face challenging times this year," Mr Brown said. "Despite market conditions, we still have good reason to be optimistic."
Notwithstanding this year's dip, traveller numbers are still 11 per cent higher than in 2007, before Eurostar moved to the new St Pancras International terminal and the final leg of the 300mph High Speed 1 rail link was opened. The surge in standard ticket sales between January and June this year coincided with the falling value of sterling and a wave of travel into the UK.
The train is also stealing fares from airline rivals, and cash-strapped consumers are trading their holidays down to shorter, European breaks, Eurostar says.
"We are benefiting from the strong euro and seeing substantial increases in travellers from Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, which is also helping the UK economy," Mr Brown said. "In addition, there is growing evidence of travellers switching from plane to high-speed train for longer, connecting journeys."
The first quarter was hit by service reductions following last September's Channel Tunnel fire, which burned for 16 hours and reached temperatures of 1000C. The undamaged freight tunnel was reopened within days, and by the end of the month two-thirds of the burnt tunnel had also reopened. But a full service did not reopen until February this year, after repairs costing €60m.
Since February, Eurostar has recorded record punctuality levels of 95.7 per cent, the company said yesterday.
When the final section of the line opened in November 2007, it shaved another 40 minutes off Eurostar journey times.
Until recently, High Speed 1 was only used by Eurostar. But Southeastern's new Javelin trains will offer a 140mph commuter service from later this year. The inaugural ride was last month.
"Eurostar looks forward to working with Southeastern to further develop services for the benefit of both international and domestic traveller," the company said yesterday.