Brexit has cut Eurostar capacity by 30 per cent, says chief executive

Capacity at London St Pancras is down by one-third because of extra passport checks – meaning fewer seats and higher fares

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 27 September 2022 19:47 BST
Eurostar Amsterdam to London: Simon Calder gives the low-down

The extra passport checks the UK requested after leaving the EU are “not sustainable”: that is the damning view of Jacques Damas, outgoing chief executive of Eurostar.

The boss of the cross-Channel train operator revealed that post-Brexit border arrangements have reduced capacity on links from London to Brussels and Paris by one-third – forcing Eurostar “to charge higher prices to our customers”.

Earlier this month Huw Merriman, chair of the transport select committee, wrote to Eurostar expressing concern about the impact of the continued closure of Ebbsfleet and Ashford international stations in Kent. Trains for Brussels and Paris ended their calls there as the coronavirus pandemic began.

They will not open until 2025 at the earliest. Eurostar is also ditching direct trains to Disneyland Paris in June 2023.

In his response to the parliamentary committee, Mr Damas spelt out in devastating detail the damage caused by Brexit to international rail travel to and from the UK.

His letter, which Mr Merriman has published, begins: “I fully appreciate the disappointment felt by many at the continued closure of the Kent stations and, indeed, the recent announcements regarding Disneyland Paris – a popular destination for many of our British customers, including those previously from Ashford.

“I also appreciate the economic impact of such a decision on the South East and the loss of choice for individual travellers. I can understand that people contrast these decisions with the recovery in travel this year and question why we have not moved to re-open the stations.”

While financial constraints and engineering issues were partly responsible, Mr Damas explained that Brexit has cut Eurostar capacity by 30 per cent – simply because the new passport requirements take time and require more space.

“Additional border checks apply to UK citizens seeking to enter Schengen, as they do to all ‘third country nationals’. Since around 40 per cent of our customers are UK nationals, this has resulted in a significant increase in the processing times at stations.

“The stamping of British passports by Continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times.

“Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour versus 2,200 in 2019.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid-to-long term.”

With supply so constrained, said Mr Damas, “we are currently not able to respond to the high demand on our core routes linking capital cities”.

He explained that reopening the intermediate stations, where demand and average fares are much lower, “would make things even worse as it would take away from London vital border police resources”.

Officials at the large terminals – London, Brussels and Paris – handle five or 10 times more passengers at Eurostar’s large terminals than in intermediate stations.

The immediate consequence, Mr Damas writes: “Despite the return to travel, Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.

“The whole focus of this effort is to manage and reduce the debts we had to incur; there is no prospect of any dividends to shareholders until this is done.”

Mr Damas revealed the severe financial damage caused by the pandemic, during which shareholders put £250m into the business – almost twice as much as the total dividends since Eurostar was created.

Revenues were cut by 95 per cent for 15 months in 2020-21, and the Omicron wave in December 2021 and early 2022 cost Eurostar at least €50m (£43m) more.

“Eurostar needed to find an additional £500m in commercial debt in order to survive,” he said.

Mr Damas added: “The uncertainty regarding the EU’s Entry Exit System (EES) – much discussed with the committee – hangs over us.”

The withdrawal agreement negotiated by the UK and the European Union means British travellers to the EU will be photographed and fingerprinted from November 2023, adding to the transaction time.

In response, Mr Merriman tweeted: “The transport committee will write to the new rail minister [Kevin Foster] and the rail regulator for observations and interventions to support Eurostar – a vital cog in our transport system.”

The Independent has asked the Department for Transport and the Home Office for a response.

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