Five months ago, Eurostar executives were toasting the rail operator's successful move from Waterloo to St Pancras at the elegant champagne bar in its new terminal. They no doubt broke out the bubbly again yesterday after reporting record passenger numbers and revenues for the first three months of the year – as customers flock to the high-speed cross-Channel service which promotes itself as the eco-friendly transport of choice.
Eurostar ticket sales leapt by 25 per cent to £178.4m between January and March – the group's first full quarter since the big move across London. Passenger traffic rose 21 per cent to 2.17 million, while punctuality hit an all-time high of 93.6 per cent.
Nick Mercer, Eurostar's commercial director, said the figures were better than expected and the group was on course to hit its target of 10 million customers within two years. Last year, 8.3 million people went to the Continent by train.
One key factor in Eurostar's rising popularity, Mr Mercer added, was the increased speed of its trains, which now travel from London to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes and to Belgium in less than two hours. "The service has brought the two cities closer together," he said. "We call it the 'two-hour club'. Psychologically, people feel Paris and Brussels are now more on their doorstep."
The move to St Pancras had greatly improved access for travellers from across Britain, Mr Mercer said. Other reasons for the excellent sales figures were the early Easter and the Rugby World Cup in France.
Eurostar often markets itself as the best mode of travel for a romantic getaway in Paris, but Mr Mercer said it was also seeing customers fall out of love with air travel. "There used to be a romance about travelling," he added. "At airports now it is a very mundane and complicated process. We still hope to offer a service where the travelling is part of the excitement."
Another issue adversely affecting airlines is the environment, as passengers look for cleaner alternatives to short-haul flights. According to Eurostar, independent research has shown that flying between London and Paris generates ten times as much carbon dioxide as the same journey by train.
Public concern about the environment was highlighted by a YouGov survey of 2,200 adults this month. It found more than half had concerns about environmental impact when planning a journey of up to 400 miles. A third said environmental concerns about short-haul journeys had become more important to them than a year ago.
Eurostar pushes its green credentials with a "Tread Lightly" programme, launched in 2006, and its partnership with Friends of the Earth. It aims to cut its CO2 emissions by 25 per cent by 2012, and said yesterday it had made "good progress" towards that goal in its first year.
The idea of boring a tunnel between France and England was first mooted by Napoleon but the project did not begin in earnest until 1987. Eurostar ran its first test train through the Channel Tunnel in June 1993 and opened for business in November the following year. It now has 27 services from Britain to destinations in France and Belgium.
Well-publicised problems have beset the Channel Tunnel owner Eurotunnel, and Eurostar has faced difficulties of its own. Its complex management structure, covering three countries, can be tricky. It was initially owned by British Rail, the state-owned SNCF in France and its Belgian counterpart SNCB. Following the privatisation of British Rail, Eurostar's UK interests were sold to London & Continental Railways in 1996. Each partner runs the service in its own territory, but in September 1999 the group realised it needed a single management team to grow and established the Eurostar Group.
It also has substantial financial obligations. Nigel Harris, the managing editor of Rail Magazine, said Eurostar was paying "extremely heavy" charges to run its fleet and infrastructure but said it had performed well – particularly since the management shake-up in 2003.
He added: "Eurostar has a good fast, punctual and reliable service. It is a real success. Give people the choice when the journey times are similar and they will take the train every time."