It was when a fire broke out on a train from Brussels last week, causing a four-hour delay, that it emerged that, with only 112 people on board, fewer than 15 per cent of the seats were filled. "We wouldn't last for a week with that type of loading," said one airline operator.
Yet this train had left Brussels at 6.30pm, peak time for business travellers. It is likely that on other trains fewer than 10 per cent of the nearly 800 seats are filled.
Yesterday, the 6.57am service from London to Brussels carried fewer than 30 passengers. A member of the train staff said this may have been because it was a new service on the timetable.
A spokesman for Eurostar said last night: "We have been disappointed there has not been greater use of the Brussels trains but we always knew that it would be harder to sell those tickets. "
There are three return trains a day to Brussels and four to Paris. European Passenger Services, which operates the trains, says it is running only a limited service while it awaits more trains and it is too early to assess the service commercially. It says that when fares - now from £95 to £195 return for both routes - are revised in the spring, the Brussels service will be made cheaper than the Paris one.
EPS was hived off from British Rail last year in preparation for privatisation. Valued at £800m it is to be given to the successful bidder for the construction of the £3bn Channel Tunnel Rail Link from London to Folkestone as part of the government contribution towards the cost.
However, if EPS is performing badly, bidders will need more government subsidy and that may put the viability of the Link, due to be completed by 2002, at risk, as the Treasury will attempt to restrict its contribution to less than half of the cost.Reuse content