We all love trains! George Stevenson’s recent article on Eurostar’s difficulties, and how some stem from Brexit, prompted a spirited response from readers, with some pertinent questions raised. Here, he responds to the broad themes, although he cannot provide a detailed reply to every question.
Some readers lamented the loss of the calls at Ebbsfleet and Ashford, as well as the services to the south of France and other locations beyond the core network. In some ways, these aren’t directly due to Brexit, but in one important way, they are.
In 2015, probably as a way of raising revenue, the UK government sold its 40% shareholding in Eurostar, so that the majority shareholding is now held by the French SNCF national railway. Eurostar is an entirely commercial operation, and unlike other GB railway companies, receives no government support.
During the pandemic, the UK government deliberately adopted what could be seen as a petty, vindictive approach, by refusing to provide any funding to support the company, and insisting that this was the French government’s responsibility. As M. Damas pointed out, this ignored the fact that many of its competitor airlines also have overseas shareholdings (eg Spain for British Airways) and received generous government support. Scoring cheap populist points by starting a row with the French government was more important than maintaining the future of a useful and important service.
Instead, Eurostar was able to secure commercial funding, but this was at higher rates of interest than that offered to the airlines. Thus, the company is still in significant debt, and has to concentrate on maximising its revenue to service this. Concentrating on its core network (now at least including Amsterdam), and increasing prices seems to be the approach adopted to achieve this. Services that cost too much to operate, and generate less revenue, such as the south of France service and calls at Ebbsfleet and Ashford are being sacrificed in order to put the company on a more secure footing.
Although the way this decision was handled cannot be laid directly at Brexit’s door, it is another aspect of the Johnson government’s combative and vindictive approach towards anything related to the EU. This sought to gain some cheap headlines and support from the most extreme Brexit supporters at the expense of finding a solution which might actually have worked. The changes of Prime Minister do seem to have resulted in a change of tone, but the omens still don’t seem good for adopting a more cooperative approach with our EU partners.
Other comments related to the immigration controls needed at St. Pancras following Brexit, and whether passport stamping is required. Here, the picture is less clear. There have been some reports that UK passport holders can use the e-gates at St. Pancras, but the consensus is that passport stamping is still required separately. On its own, then, use of the e-gates won’t speed up the process, as passports will still need to be checked and stamped manually, which adds time to a process which was previously relatively smooth. This also means that eligible travellers can’t use the quicker e-gates, whilst manual checks are focussed on those that need them, such as passengers with children. This would speed up overall processing time by removing many passengers from the manual queue, as will be familiar from the entry checks at UK airports.
The problem is that the limit of 90 days within any 180 days for visits to the EU is applied across the Schengen zone, meaning that passports now need to be carefully checked to ensure that a traveller hasn’t exceeded the limit - yet another example of something important being overlooked or deliberately ignored in the rush to ‘get Brexit done’.
As is highlighted in M. Damas’s letter, there is also considerable uncertainty regarding the effects of the EU’s Entry & Exit System (EES), if this is implemented in 2023. This may be faster for registered travellers, but could be much longer for travellers making their first visit to the EU (and all of us will be first-time users of the system at some time). Overall, without a change in travel rules between the UK and EU, it doesn’t look like there’s much chance of speeding up processing time enough to overcome the artificial constraint of only one train operating in any one hour.
However, there seems to be some scope for improving arrangements without a wholesale renegotiation towards freedom of movement (however desirable that may be). The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change recently published a report ‘Fixing Brexit: A New Agenda for a New Partnership With the European Union’. Amongst a wide range of recommendations, the report argues for simplification of visa processes for individuals, with the UK requesting ‘enhanced, reciprocal, short-term visits with visa-free arrangements’. Removing the ’90 days within 180 days’ restriction would reduce the need for detailed passport checking and allow entry to be managed electronically, both reducing processing time. In any case, it seems perverse that travel to our nearest neighbours should be made so difficult.
Finally, some readers offered their own experiences of how travel has been made more difficult. This is also an important part of making our case. Language has made us a species of storytellers. Personal stories, particularly from someone we feel we can identify with, often have more impact than dry statistics or carefully crafted arguments. As the malign effects of Brexit become ever more obvious, these stories could help us swing the case in favour of a much closer relationship with the EU.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.