At the end of September, Jacques Damas, the Chief Executive of Eurostar, wrote to the Chair of Parliament’s Transport Select Committee to explain why Eurostar services were no longer stopping at the stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford. The appropriately named George Stevenson ponders he implications.
Damas is about to leave the company, so perhaps he felt less inhibited to speak than he might have been previously. Whilst he addressed the issue in question, he also highlighted wider implications for Eurostar’s services.
Critically, he explained that the requirement for more stringent border checks following Brexit has reduced the number of passengers who can be processed through St. Pancras International station.
Pre-Brexit, the station could manage 2200 passengers per hour, now it is only 1500 passengers per hour. Stamping a passport may only add a short time for an individual passenger (he referred to an additional 15 seconds), but those extra seconds soon add up with a large number of people.
A fully-loaded Eurostar train can carry 900 passengers, so passengers for more than one train in any single hour could easily overwhelm the station’s ability to cope. Damas concluded by saying that it was only because Eurostar had deliberately limited its train service that ‘we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London, similar to those experienced in the Channel ports’.
All of this is happening at a time when demand for travel has returned (leisure strongly, business less so), as anyone who travelled through an airport during the summer will have noticed. Reopening the stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford would worsen the situation, as it would take further border police away from St. Pancras (there is an irony in this, as many areas of Kent voted for Brexit, but will once again be disproportionately affected by the consequences).
There seems little chance of the popular services to Eurodisney, Lyon and the south of France being reinstated any time soon; and the ski train to the French Alps is now only run as part of a package holiday deal.
Put simply, Eurostar is unable to run a service to match the demand on offer because of the impact of the more stringent border controls. Like every transport operator, Eurostar was severely affected by the pandemic, but its ability to recover from these effects is being severely hampered by these additional requirements.
Eurostar isn’t an essential service, but it is very useful, and nice to have. And in an era when the need to tackle climate change is becoming ever more urgent, restricting the most environmentally friendly way of travelling between the UK and mainland Europe seems particularly short-sighted.
As an individual, I am angry that such a useful service should be sacrificed on the altar of ideology, for the most threadbare of reasons, and with no discernible benefits. But in truth, this is no different to the small businesses finding it uneconomic to sell to mainland Europe, fishermen unable to sell their catch, or firms unable to recruit staff to fill vacancies. All are casualties of Brexit, and perhaps difficulties in travelling are just another part of the whole sorry spectacle.
All the more reason to campaign for a closer relationship with the EU. Travel to our nearest neighbours shouldn’t be hampered by these sorts of inconveniences.
I don’t know how easy it would be to negotiate a bespoke travel deal, or whether there is a halfway house short of full freedom of movement, but there is no reason for not trying.
Or should we be considering measures such as exit checks (withdrawn in the 1990s) as a way of responding to anxieties about a lack of knowledge of who is travelling to and from the country? The reinstatement of what we enjoyed for several decades could be a tangible win for the wider population, showing that co-operation is far better than trying to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.