Eurostar yesterday unveiled the train that it hopes will see off competition from rival operators through the Channel Tunnel – and offer new direct links from London to cities deeper in Europe.
Since Eurostar launched services between London and Paris in 1994, it has cornered the largest share of the richest travel market in Europe.
But new competition rules, known as "open access", allow rival operators to compete between the UK and the Continent. Deutsche Bahn, the German rail operator, is expected to run a test train later this month through the tunnel to try to make the case for relaxing regulations and hope to run services to Cologne and Frankfurt. Other operators, ranging from a consortium involving Air France to a "low-cost" Italian rail firm, have shown interest in running trains to and from London St Pancras.
Eurostar has ordered 10 new trains, code-named e320, from Siemens of Germany as part of a £700m package of improvements. They carry 900 passengers rather than the current 750, and are also slightly faster than the existing rolling stock – capable of 20km/h more than the current 300km/h. The company says the new trains "could see journey times between London and Paris reduced to just over two hours"; at present the non-stop trip takes two hours, 15 minutes. The new trains are additional to Eurostar's existing 28 trains, which date from 1994. They will be refurbished and equipped with Wi-Fi.
Nicolas Petrovic, Eurostar's chief executive, said: "The combination of our new state-of-the-art trains and our refurbished fleet will assure our position as the leading rail operator between the UK and the Continent and make us the obvious choice for short-haul European travel." He said the train operator's sights "are now set on expanding our business across Europe".
At present the only Eurostar services that go beyond Paris are seasonal trains to the French Alps in winter and to Avignon in summer. Rolling stock originally intended to run from British cities such as Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to the Continent has been variously mothballed, sold off or leased to domestic operators in Britain and France. The two stations in Kent that were intended to cater for travellers from outside London – Ashford and Ebbsfleet – have seen services cut well below the levels originally envisaged.
Despite its lack of success in serving locations other than London, Brussels and Paris, Eurostar raised the prospect of running direct trains from London to Amsterdam in under four hours, and to Geneva in five hours. The company said it would look at other destinations, with potential direct services into Germany or to provincial French cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux.
Mark Smith, founder of the website Seat61.com, told The Independent: "Eurostar has previously declined suggestions that they should run through trains to Amsterdam, partly because of the technical problems of adapting existing Eurostar sets to yet another national signalling system, and partly because the London-Amsterdam route is already hotly contested by multiple low-fare airlines making it a difficult market to enter."