pounds 49 Paris return in Eurostar takeover

Direct trains to Euro Disney and to the French Alps are being promised as part of the relaunch for the Eurostar train service when it is taken over by a private consortium next month.

The new services are part of a complete revamp of the loss-making service - to be promoted with an advertising campaign featuring Frenchman Eric Cantona, Manchester United's star striker - with the aim of doubling the number of passengers, from its current annual level of 3 million, within the next year.

Other measures include a pounds 49 return fare from London to Paris or Brussels in conjunction with promotions for Virgin Cola, special student tickets - also for pounds 49 - rail travel to the south of France, changing at Lille, for pounds 99 return and to Cologne, in Germany, for pounds 79 return. Business travellers will also be able to interchange tickets between British Midland and Eurostar, taking the train in one direction and flying in the other.

Travellers from Ashford in Kent will be able to buy a pounds 49 return to Paris or Brussels during the school holidays.

London & Continental (L&C) is also introducing direct daily trains to Euro Disney throughout the summer, starting on 29 June, and there will be promotional fares of pounds 49 50 per person for those travelling with children.

This compares with Eurostar's current cheapest fares of pounds 59 to Paris and pounds 69 to Brussels and is much cheaper than the pounds 89 cheapest fare on airlines. Eurostar claims to have already taken around 60 per cent of the Paris leisure market and 27 per cent of the Brussels business market on its trains.

The company is also looking at on-board entertainment, with seat-back videos initially for first-class passengers, and eventually in standard class. There may also be entertainment on the Euro Disney train with magicians, fortune tellers and face-painting for children.

L&C will take over the British part of the Eurostar service - which is also part- owned by the French and Belgian railways - at the end of the month as part of the deal to build the pounds 3bn Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

The idea is that the consortium will be able to use the profits from the Eurostar service to fund the construction of the link and therefore it is essential for L&C to turn the finances around quickly.

Ian Brooks, Eurostar's commercial director, said: "I have staked my job on doubling the number of passengers on Eurostar by next year."

Richard Branson, whose Virgin group is part of L&C, was even more optimistic, saying he hoped by the end of the decade 30 million people would be using the Eurostar trains each year, but this is seen as wildly optimistic by most rail industry observers.