Eurostar boasts soaring traffic figures despite shaky 2003

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The Independent Online

The cross-channel train operator Eurostar yesterday celebrated its best-ever winter traffic figures as the opening of the first phase of the high-speed channel tunnel rail link boosted fourth-quarter passenger numbers by 15 per cent to nearly 1.7 million.

But revenues during the three-month period to the end of December only rose 11 per cent to £98m - reflecting the intensified price war with the airlines on the London-Paris and London-Brussels routes.

For the year as a whole, passenger numbers were 4 per cent lower at 6.3 million while revenues were down by a steeper 8 per cent to £376m, suggesting that Eurostar's losses deepened in 2003. The company is losing an estimated £100m a year and is receiving taxpayers' support through loans paid to its UK shareholder, London and Continental Railways.

Paul Charles, Eurostar's director of communications, said it would not be possible to give figures on the company's overall financial position until it became one integrated business. This is due to happen by the middle of the year when the British, French and Belgian arms are consolidated into Eurostar International.

The new company will be 55 per cent-owned by the French state railway SNCF and 40-45 per cent-owned by LCR, with Belgian state railways retaining a small minority stake.

Under chief executive Richard Brown Eurostar expects to carry 7 million passengers this year, now that journey times to Paris and Brussels have been cut with the opening last September of the first phase of the new link from the Kent coast to London's St Pancras station. Eurostar is aiming for more than 8 million passengers when the second phase of the line opens in 2007, saving a further 15 minutes and cutting the time to Paris to two hours and 15 minutes and bringing the journey to Brussels to under two hours.

The company said that the introduction of faster, more frequent services, coupled with an extension of cheap saver tickets and a reduction in business fares had helped Eurostar to increase its market share to 66 per cent on London-Paris and 48 per cent on London-Brussels in November.