On Tuesday morning at 8.31, the first passenger-carrying train from London to Amsterdam will leave St Pancras station in London. Annoyingly it is not actually in public service but by invitation only, from Eurostar, to travel industry people and media.
The cross-Channel operator is making a promotional run to the Dutch capital, timetabled to take just three hours, 41 minutes. The train is due to pull into Amsterdam’s handsome Centraal Station at 1.12pm, local time, whereupon the privileged passengers can go straight to lunch at a waterside restaurant.
Eurostar starts selling tickets on Tuesday, promising one-way fares as low as £35 once the scheduled service starts on 4 April. That’s competitive with the cheapest plane tickets, which also involve the extra cost of reaching the airport. When I talked to the Eurostar's chief executive, Nicolas Petrovic, he implied the train operator is poised to transform travel between London and Amsterdam, saying: “We are back to the pioneering days of 1994, when we first served Paris.”
The implication: just as Eurostar trains to Paris and Brussels saw off most planes, so a rail revolution will prevail to Amsterdam.
I am not so sure. On its existing city routes, Eurostar sells time. Airlines cannot match a central London to central Paris journey of 2 hours, 16 minutes. “Business Premier” passengers can even check in with just 10 minutes to go. Don’t try that at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle.
By air from London, Amsterdam is the same distance as Paris, give or take 10 miles. The time in the air to both is typically 40 minutes; the gate-to-gate schedule allows for 80 minutes or more, by the time “padding“ is added for taxiing and queueing. But by rail, Amsterdam is much further.
I reckon that if two colleagues were to start a train vs plane race from St Pancras, the flying Dutchperson is in with a good chance of waiting on the platform at Centraal Station for the Eurostar to arrive. Of course the rail traveller will have had a far less stressful and more productive journey. But that doesn’t apply on the homeward trip. Because there is no Amsterdam to London express.
The problem: Eurostar needs to check passengers’ passports before they board trains to Britain, as it does in Paris, Brussels, Lille and Calais. But the UK and Dutch governments won’t finalise a deal until next year.
So for rail travellers from Amsterdam to London, the near future looks just like today. You need to board a Thalys high-speed train to Brussels. You then go through security and border control, and join the Eurostar train, which adds complexity and an hour to the journey. And it begs the question: if Eurostar to Amsterdam is one-way only, what’s happening to the trains – and won’t the operator run out of rolling stock rather quickly?
The Eurostar trains will come back to London, running from Amsterdam via Brussels, where they pause for 28 minutes. But unhelpfully for Amsterdam-to-London passengers, that is considered too short a time to take people off the train and process them before continuing.
So Eurostar is trying to do two things at once. While it sends its passengers to the rival operator, Thalys, it is also seeking to poach travellers from Thalys to fill its own Amsterdam-Brussels trains.
Let’s see how that goes. If the train captures as much as half of the market between London and Amsterdam I will eat my ticket. Then promptly print out another one, and hop aboard to Holland.
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