Eurostar has defended its decision to open Ebbsfleet International station in north Kent next month, despite protests from business leaders dependent on Ashford International station.
Residents of south Kent and neighbouring counties have joined businesses in accusing Eurostar of betraying companies and commuters reliant on the high-speed link to the Continent provided by the station at Ashford. They argue that a planned reduction in services from Ashford will cause havoc for regular users, and will act against Eurostar's green credentials by forcing passengers to drive further before getting on a train.
"I think what they're doing is absolutely appalling, a huge mistake", said Chris Capron, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, which represents the business community in Ashford. "Many businesses came over from the Continent because of the rail link. To them, this feels like an enormous let-down".
Residents are irate at the prospect of travelling into central London or to Ebbsfleet, 34 miles north of Ashford. Humphrey Hudson, a retired journalist from Tunbridge Wells, said: "This is all about the needs of Londoners. It's clear they don't care about people from Kent, Surrey or Sussex at all."
The station at Ebbsfleet is due to open on 19 November, a week after Eurostar's High Speed 1 project culminates with the transfer of services from Waterloo, south of the Thames, to St Pancras, in north London.
As part of the new route, the number of direct services from Ashford to Paris will be reduced from seven daily to three. More controversially, the four daily services from Ashford to Brussels will be scrapped. Commuters wishing to reach Brussels will have to use a daily service to Disneyland Paris, and change at Lille, or drive to Ebbsfleet.
"The scrapping of the daily, direct service to Brussels is a massive blow for companies in Ashford," said Mr Capron. "We need an early morning and late evening train to Brussels at least. Ashford went through an enormous amount of pain to put up with this rail link right through the heart of our town. Our roads and services were disrupted for months. For Eurostar to neglect us like this feels very demoralising."
The station at Ebbsfleet will offer seven trains to Paris and five trains to Brussels daily. Eurostar executives have argued that, with its close links to the M25, Ebbsfleet will serve a larger catchment area of up to 10 million people, and will be crucial for regenerating the Thames estuary.
"We fully understand that Ashford will be disappointed," said Simon Montague, Eurostar's director of communications. "But we have a remit to maximise passenger numbers and maximise revenues."
Concerns have also been raised about the environmental impact of Ebbsfleet. According to Mr Capron: "People in Sussex and Surrey are being forced to drive north before travelling south again by train. That's hardly green. It's absurd. What's this doing to our carbon footprints?"
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