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Eurostar boss says Kent stations will reopen ‘only when we can afford it’

Ebbsfleet and Ashford International were closed at the start of the pandemic, with no date envisaged for services to resume

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 10 October 2023 10:40 BST
Eurostar boss says there is a ‘strong willingness’ to travel by train

Eurostar’s chief executive says Kent’s two currently disused stations on the high-speed line to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will only reopen “once we can afford it”.

Speaking at the brand launch for Eurostar’s merger with rail firm Thalys, Gwendoline Cazenave said her priority was on ensuring the passenger experience at London and Paris is the “best it can be”.

Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International were part of the original High Speed 1 plan connecting London St Pancras International with the Channel Tunnel.

Ebbsfleet is close to the M25 and A2 in north Kent, providing a park-and-ride facility for travellers from locations outside London. Ashford is the main rail hub for east Kent, with links from Maidstone, Canterbury, Dover, Folkestone, Hastings and Tonbridge.

Before the Covid pandemic, both stations had direct services to Continental Europe. But they closed swiftly as the virus spread. Eurostar has never committed to a firm reopening date, though the company has successively said it would be no earlier than 2022, 2023 and – most recently – 2025.

Ms Cazenave said: “It has not been an easy decision to make not to stop in these stations anymore.

“As you know, we are getting through operational issues, financial issues.”

Eurostar was harder hit by the pandemic than almost any other transport provider. While it kept a skeleton service running between London and Paris, often travel restrictions meant that only a handful of passengers were on board each train – with numbers falling below 1 per cent of normal levels.

Eurostar, which is majority owned by SNCF (French Railways) lost hundreds of millions of pounds during the pandemic.

While demand has picked up very strongly, capacity is limited by post-Brexit passport control issues: the UK asked to be treated as a “third country” by the European Union, meaning that London St Pancras now houses a hard EU border where British passports must be inspected and stamped.

Some Eurostar trains are capped in the number of passengers they can carry in order to reduce the pressure on French passport control.

Ms Cazenave said the Kent stations will reopen “when we can afford reopening, having enough resources in Ashford and Ebbsfleet to cross the borders”. This would involve investing in eGates as well as paying for Eurostar and French Police aux Frontières staff at both stations.

“We don’t want to put at stake the borders at St Pancras or Paris Nord, where the number of customers are really much, much bigger.

“We still have a lot of challenges in front of us.”

The much-delayed EU Entry Exit System, which the UK also asked to be subject to, requires British passengers to have facial biometrics and fingerprints taken. This will have to happen in the very constrained Eurostar terminal at London St Pancras.

Ms Cazenave added: “We very often meet Ebbsfleet and Ashford people.” But she did not give an estimate for reopening the stations.

Meanwhile passengers from Kent who wish to travel by train to France must take a domestic train – often on the High Speed 1 tracks – to London St Pancras, only to return on the same line an hour or two later.

Eurostar’s merger with Thalys will provide UK passengers with better connections to destinations in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany through the hub at Brussels Midi station.

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