Why I'm a Eurostar sceptic

Its first journey 20 years ago should have signalled the start of a golden era of train travel. But in spite of advances, there’s still more work to be done if Eurostar is to compete with the low-cost airlines, says Simon Calder

Eurostar is celebrating this week. On Friday, the Channel Tunnel train operator will mark 20 years of running trains between Britain and Continental Europe. Three great capitals – London, Paris and Brussels – enjoy fast, frequent and safe connections. High-speed rail is the most civilised form of inter-city travel, and Eurostar adds the aesthetic advantage of operating to and from the world’s most beautiful transport terminal, St Pancras station in London. But from the point of view of many travellers, Eurostar has delivered a succession of failures.

I don’t mean the occasional snarl-ups that strand thousands of people in the wrong country or, sometimes, on broken-down trains in the tunnel. I mean the failure to offer much beyond the narrow business of shuttling people from London to the French and Belgian capitals, while charging fares that reflect the natural near-monopoly that Eurostar possesses.

Take the journey that Charlotte, one of thousands of Parisians working in London, will make to see her family at Christmas. She will head for St Pancras to catch a train – not Eurostar to the French capital, but Thameslink north to Luton airport for an easyJet flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Even with the rail costs to and from the airport, she found a better deal than the train.

When Eurostar opened for business, everyone thought the world’s busiest international air route – between London and Paris – would collapse. Surely everyone seeking to travel between Western Europe’s two biggest cities would opt for the train? Rail places far less stress on the traveller and the planet than does flying. But even with a city-to-city rail journey of as little as 2h15m (quicker still to Brussels), the skies between the British, French and Belgian capitals are still busy. Indeed, easyJet has recently launched flights from Gatwick to both Paris and Brussels.

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Some rail insiders insist Eurostar should carry twice as many people as it does now (Alamy)

Eurostar enjoys, but is also stifled by, its unique position. Without a direct challenger, the train operator quite rationally extracts a handsome premium from passengers who need speed and flexibility. As long as plenty of business travellers are prepared to pay £490 for a “Business Premier” return, the company need not fret about losing Charlotte and thousands of others like her to the airlines and coach operators.

Competition was due to arrive last year, in the shape of Deutsche Bahn. The German rail giant had announced trains from London that would split at Brussels, with half running east to Cologne and the remainder going north to Amsterdam. At last, we would have been able to see how much of a market exists for key routes to Holland and the Rhineland. But the Germans postponed the launch, and may finally make an appearance in 2016. By then, Eurostar will have some new trains and will itself launch a direct service to Amsterdam. Too little, too late. 

This regrettable state of affairs has its roots in the level of air fares a couple of decades ago. The business case for Eurostar assumed that the cost of flying would remain sky-high. In 1994, the cheapest air fare between London and Paris was £99 return. Eurostar’s launch fare was pitched at £95. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost a year to the day after the first Eurostar train departed, a garish orange plane took off from Luton, destination Glasgow. As easyJet got off the ground between England and Scotland, Ryanair was expanding beyond the Irish Sea. The travelling public loved the fares and tolerated the absence of frills. Both airlines soon launched flights to the Continent to democratise international travel. Since then, the transportational balance of power has shifted so much that Eurostar’s original business plan now looks absurd. So does the structure for access payments to the tunnel owner. The precise formula is a closely guarded secret, but it is believed that Eurotunnel extracts a per-passenger and per-train payment amounting to at least £40 return for the average traveller on a reasonably full train. That is a negligible portion of a £490 business-traveller’s fare, but a large slab of the lowest fare Eurostar ever charges these days: £59 return.

High access charges also help to explain why “Regional Eurostar” trains from provincial cities were doomed before they began. Rolling stock to connect Birmingham and Manchester with Paris was built at taxpayer’s expense, but was never used for its intended purpose and ended up shuttling from London to York and from Lille to Paris.

As one highly experienced and respected railway figure told me this week: “If low-cost airlines had started earlier, the Channel Tunnel would never had been built.”

Likewise, if Eurostar didn’t exist, you wouldn’t invent it. But since it’s here, what can be done to turn the train operator into a stellar 21st-century component of European transport? A good place to start: trains from London, by far the biggest travel market in Europe, deeper into the Continent. Eurostar has been running token services that go beyond Paris: seasonal winter-sports links to the French Alps and a summer Saturday service to Avignon. But the no-frills carriers have cornered the rest of the market. To regain an advantage for the train, security and immigration controls are two hurdles that need to be eased. Even in the relatively benign times of the early 1990s, the government decided that the Channel Tunnel was a prime terrorist target and therefore airline-like security must be applied. Lighten up, and the 30-minute check-in deadline can be eased, raising the perceived value of Eurostar. And since every other country manages to carry out passport and customs checks on board moving trains, it’s a shame that we can’t.

Next summer, to its credit, Eurostar opens a new link from London via Lyon to Marseille: the Thames to the Med in six hours. The trouble is, the reverse trip takes seven, due to the need to get off at Lille, to shuffle through UK Immigration and security before re-boarding the train. No wonder the airlines are laughing.

The other desperate need is for smarter pricing. No-frills airlines reward me for travelling at silly o’clock – departing absurdly early or returning at midnight – with very low fares. But Eurostar has never sought to fill its early and late departures.  A more flexible deal with the owner of the tunnel would generate more traffic and, ultimately, income – particularly if very low fares are offered to passengers venturing beyond Paris and Brussels. Eurostar serves Marne-la-Vallée, the station for Disneyland Paris,  but makes no effort to connect there with French Railways’ network of Ouigo low-cost, high-speed trains to the South of France.

Last year, Eurostar carried more than 10m passengers for the first time. An important milestone – but remember cross-Channel ferries? Just one port, Dover, handles 25 per cent more passengers than the train operator.

Some rail insiders insist Eurostar should carry twice as many people as it does now. They might be lured by new trains. As the prospect of competition approaches, Eurostar has at last decided to refresh its fleet with some 21st-century rolling stock. It will be unveiled tomorrow, just ahead of Friday’s celebration.

I will not join the Eurostar party on Friday, because I am off to do some research in Maastricht. It is a journey that should be a natural for Eurostar, starting in London with quick changes at Brussels and Liège. Yet the train would get me to the Dutch city only by lunchtime, for a one-way fare of about £120. (I say “about” because Eurostar does not allow me to book direct to Maastricht; it sells tickets only to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and, ironically, Schiphol airport – so I would have to buy a separate ticket.) Flybe is taking me there for a flat £40. Even adding the expense and messing around of airport links, I will save a fortune and get to Maastricht in time for elevenses. Eurostar still looks all at sixes and sevens.

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Gare du Nord (Alamy)

Other Independent writers do not share this jaundiced view of Eurostar. Here are some alternative opinions.

Paris has always been one of my favourite destinations, but I’d always flown. However, I was told to try the Eurostar and I haven’t looked back since. Travelling by train feels like a breath of fresh air; it’s lovely to have nice views along the way. Next month, my husband and I are going to try the London to Brussels route. We love the vibe at St Pancras International – having a coffee and cupcake at Peyton and Byrne before checking in.

Mars El Brogy

I’m a big fan of rail travel and especially the TGV system – sliding through northern France at impressive speeds, not slowing until the graffiti-ed outskirts of Paris. When alone, I’ve had some great conversations with fellow travellers. I’ve also found Eurostar’s smart staff delightful, especially that frozen Christmas when trains were cancelled – we queued for hours at King’s Cross, nourished with free cakes and coffee. My only real gripe about the service is the experience of the Gare du Nord. It needs major investment. Last time I was there, the inadequate space was rammed with tetchy travellers and the toilets were mostly broken. Eurostar, for me, has been a fantastic service; it just needs to upgrade for the next 20 years.

Mike North

A few years ago, a Canadian friend of mine who had worked in London for a couple of years gave me a gift before she left: two Eurostar vouchers worth £50 each. They were, in a way, love tokens. I had developed a crush on a French girl called Clémence (middle name: Cliché), who had moved back to Paris from London. The Canadian, another former hopeless crush who was by then married, wanted me to visit the French girl. I never did, because I was hopeless, but some time later a barely more romantically adept friend of mine had hooked up with another French girl who then also moved home from London. So I passed on one token to him, keeping the other in my drawer – just in case. It’s still there, and may well have expired. But I’m marrying an English girl next year, so it’s fine.

Simon Usborne

I find it consistently amazing that I can get to Paris in about the same time it takes me to get to Manchester, where my family live. In fact, generally, I get there earlier. Comparing and contrasting the trip to Paris with travelling to any other European destination, the straightforward, straight-line simplicity of the Eurostar bowls me over. I’m gushing, but the lack of strip-searching and liquid-decanting, the early-morning rousing and grousing, the continuing connection of phone (and therefore self) to the outside world, make it the smoothest trip possible. Plus, no luggage limits. Except when I buckle under the weight.

Alexander Fury

Yes, the interiors are tired, the onboard croissants cardboard at best and the arrival in Paris decidely un-chic (at least until you’re out on the other side of the Metro), but I am a long-time lover of L’Eurostar. My first journey was to visit my best friend in Holland in the train’s very early days. Aged 14, it was the first time I’d been allowed to travel alone and it was tremendously exciting to be whisked off to Belgium and decipher the train-change for another country all by myself. Even today, I still feel a frisson of excitement – surely it can’t be that simple to get off the Tube and on to the train, to arrive in a foreign country after little more than a couple of hours?

Sophie Lam

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