Speedy Eurostar misses a trick

Next month, time-travel for British holidaymakers will change profoundly. At present, the fastest way to reach a seaside town from the UK's busiest station, London Waterloo, is to take the 85-minute haul to Hastings. From 28 September, if construction goes according to plan, one coastal destination will be just 80 minutes from Waterloo. But it is not in England: thanks to the new fast rail link that is ripping through east Kent, the quickest way to dip a toe in the sea will be to take a Eurostar train to Calais.

When the first stage of the £7bn high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) opens on 28 September, Eurostar has the chance to create a brand-new market. High-spending weekenders could be persuaded that the Côte d'Opale, stretching south-west along the coast from Calais, is a fascinating part of France. This much-overlooked area is soon to be quicker to reach than the south coast of England. Yet the hoteliers of Hastings need have no fears about a battle for business; Eurostar does not intend to increase the number of trains calling at Calais beyond the present two a day.

WHO ARE those merry folk at London Waterloo, with smiles as wide as the Channel Tunnel: holidaymakers, perhaps? No, they appear to be in uniform. The same garb, in fact, as their cheery colleagues at Paris Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi. And why are they all so happy? Because they know that the principal beneficiaries of the incredibly expensive new line are to be... Eurostar employees.

Don't get me wrong: workers in the travel industry deserve the most favourable conditions they can negotiate. But the trades unions representing staff on trains through the Channel Tunnel did not even need to ask to secure an immediate across-the-board 40-minute reduction in the working day.

Travellers tend to think of accelerated journey times as a passenger benefit. In fact, faster trips constitute a blessing for the transport operator. The company can use the same equipment and staff more efficiently to run more services, reducing the cost per seat and passing on the savings to the traveller. Yet Eurostar does not plan to take advantage of the new line to run a single extra train, even though it has the "paths" (slots on the rail network) to do so.

At present, the normal working day for each member of Eurostar train crew comprises one return journey. For a trip to Paris and back, that will soon mean a total travelling time of barely five hours. Accordingly, staff can look forward to a more relaxed lifestyle. They will be able to spend more time with their families, while the trains continue to run less than half full.

Eurostar is approaching its 10th year with sinking fortunes. Even though rail travel is free of many of the hassles and hold-ups that flyers face, the Channel Tunnel train operator has somehow contrived to lose market share to the airlines. For a company that has the good fortune to be based in central London, at the middle of the biggest travel market in Europe, that is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Should anyone care? Yes, because almost anyone who travels from Britain is affected. For a start, some Eurostar passengers face painfully high fares. In a bid to stem its losses, the train operator charges punitive prices to anyone with the temerity to make a short trip to the Continent. One night in Paris or Brussels will cost you a fortune, unless it is a Saturday, because the company is trying to squeeze as much as it can from business travellers.

The first consequence of these rigid rules is the interesting "grey market" for Eurostar travel. Because no check is made to ensure that the passenger's name matches his or her passport, there is a flourishing trade in second-hand tickets. Sometimes the subterfuge is planned in advance; if you need to make a trip to Paris this week, and a colleague is obliged to travel the week after, both can benefit by mixing and matching two tickets. You buy a £59 return from London to Paris, while your colleague takes advantage of a similar deal from Paris to London. You travel out on the first half of your ticket, and back on the first part of your colleague's; he or she uses the remaining portions.

This practice breaks the rules, as does the surreptitious sale of unwanted tickets for cash at Waterloo station. But the trade persists because Eurostar fares are so rigid - especially for people who need only a one-way ticket.

When I need to reach Paris with no fixed plans to return, I try to travel on a late Saturday afternoon, to take advantage of the "Nightclubbers' special" costing £35, and neglect to return the following morning. At other times, I fly. So do lots of other people, to the detriment of the passenger experience - and the environment.

Eurostar will carry about eight million empty seats between Britain and the Continent this year. Many of those missing travellers will be airborne, taking advantage of the lack of restrictions on cheap flights to Paris and Brussels on airlines such as British Airways and BMI. They will put up with the airport crowds and hassles to save a small fortune. Indeed, they will add to the congestion by switching from rail to air. Were there fewer flights between London and Paris, space and slots would be freed, which would benefit other travellers. But instead British Airways and easyJet have launched more flights to the French capital. They believe they can grab a bigger share of the market that should, by rights, be almost the sole preserve of Eurostar.

As soon as trains start running at 186mph through Kent, rail passengers will save 20 minutes from London to Paris or Brussels. The new line should help Eurostar to contain the decline. But will the company seize the opportunities for growth that the acceleration offers? Not if its present lack of ambition prevails.

When Michael O'Leary took over as chief executive of Ryanair in 1994 - the year that Eurostar began - the airline's productivity went through the roof and fares went through the floor. Those yawning cabin crew on the Stansted Express might be weary because they have flown to Scotland and back three times in a single shift. But at least they have the security of working for the world's most profitable airline.

The effect of faster trains on travellers' perceptions of distance reverberate deeper into France. Paris will be quicker to reach than some commuter destinations; the French capital will overtake Weymouth for ease of access from Waterloo. Indeed, the journey time of two hours, 35 minutes is faster than the rail trip between London and Manchester.

The present two-hour journey time to the city of Lille reduces to 100 minutes, making it closer to Waterloo than is Bournemouth or Dover. Lille is the Clapham Junction of Flanders, with connections to all corners of France, including Charles de Gaulle airport, the Riviera and Brittany. Eurostar is majority-owned by SNCF, the nationalised French railway. You might imagine, therefore, that schedules would be dovetailed to allow quick connections between Britain and France. But Eurostar is evidently an afterthought in the complexities of scheduling French trains. With only sporadic services between Lille and London, some passengers from the south of France are obliged to wait nearly two hours at the charm-free Lille Europe station for an onward connection to Waterloo.

Eurostar could take advantage of the resources freed up by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to fill the gaps in its schedule and run a shuttle between London and Lille. But it has no plans to do so. Airline bosses must feel blessed with the competition they face from Eurostar - and be fearful that one day the train operator will wake up and seize the market. But for now they are looking as cheery as Eurostar train crews.