I am a regular and largely satisified Eurostar user, but we haven’t yet fulfilled the potential of rail travel via the Channel Tunnel

 

Deutsche Bahn’s plans for cross-Channel services have not progressed far beyond a 2010 photoshoot
 

 

Travel between Britain and continental Europe has been revolutionised over the last 24 years as a result of the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Particularly for those people living in the south east of England, but also more widely across England and Wales, and travelling to many locations across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany the option of a train journey as well as the various air travel and remaining ferry routes provides a welcome set of travel options.

Some of the changes as a result of the Channel Tunnel were predictable, while some others not necessarily expected. Certainly train travel to and from locations in central London, Paris and Brussels would be a convenient alternative to travelling via out of town, or more remote, airports in terms of door-to-door travel time. However, few would have predicted how time consuming and stressful air travel would increasingly become as a result of the need for increased passenger screening and general security. This has also impacted cross-Channel rail services, but to a lesser extent.

It was originally assumed that a strong market would exist connecting “north of London” to the Channel Tunnel and continental destinations and this would be serviced by a mix of day and overnight train services using dedicated rolling stock adapted for the mix of power systems and dynamic gauges required. But the growth of low cost airlines across Britain and Europe never allowed these services to even enter the market, and today much of the connectivity between central and northern England as well as Scotland and Wales with the near continent is via these low cost air services.

While the original “international” station at Waterloo was an architectural showpiece and an impressive intervention into the Victorian station, it was inconveniently located for much of the London and south east England market and more problematically was connected to the Channel Tunnel via a series of Victorian commuter railway lines that were by no means suitable for 400-metre long high speed services. The resulting impact across the commuter services in south east London and Kent was perpetual service disruption.

The move to St Pancras International in late 2007 created an even greater architectural wonder and better designed space for the Channel Tunnel rail services. There has also been substantial rebuilding of the cross-Channel terminals in Brussels at Gare du Midi and at Paris Gare du Nord over the years. Rebuilding work at Gare du Nord is again underway to provide larger and improved facilities. Much of this rebuilding work has been necessary in order to provide for the specific security as well as practical needs of the cross-Channel consumer and maintain a competitive service offer versus the airline option.
However, this is raising a number of issues.

Imagine if we were faced with only one low cost airline, or one full service airline? Or, there was only one car rental company in the market

Firstly, I am a frequent, broadly satisfied customer of the Eurostar services and certainly see these train services as my preferred travel option for any cross-Channel journey to the nearby countries of western Europe. However, while often muted and debated, a competitive market has yet to develop in cross-Channel rail services. Does this matter if we have a customer focused existing operator? Imagine if we were faced with only one low cost airline, or one full service airline? Or, there was only one car rental company in the market.

Cross-Channel rail services are not comparable to intra-city (rail) public transport where infrastructure limits, intensity of use and public subsidies dictate a single operator of services. There is a clear infrastructure component in the cross-Channel market, but the Channel Tunnel is operated by a separate company, currently known as Getlink, and the infrastructure is not at capacity – in fact the operator of the tunnel is seeking to increase use and the number of operators for both passenger and freight services. The European Union has since 2010 been implementing directives to open international rail services to competition and by 2020 this will apply to domestic intercity services.

The market has responded in various ways and robust new entrants have appeared in for example: Austria with Westbahn; Italy with NTV; the Czech Republic with LeoExpress and RegioJet; and Germany with a range of players, now including FlixTrain. The franchised model of competition in the UK has also generated a limited range of “open access” operators.

Deutsche Bahn has teased us with on and off proposals over the last decade to enter the cross-Channel market. But nothing has yet emerged from them or for that matter from a low cost operator such as Ouigo or FlixTrain.

It should be noted that Eurostar is majority owned by SNCF who have also invested in a number of the emerging new market entrants such as Westbahn and NTV. Ouigo is also a brand extension of now branded InOui mainline TGV services in France.

Clearly, there are substantial barriers to entry into the cross-Channel rail market. The safety regime in the Channel Tunnel is elaborate and leads to very high operating costs. This includes trains being sufficiently long to always be able to directly access the service tunnel via one of the access portals. Thus, the trains are circa 400 metres long. The length and thus capacity of the trains makes it difficult to operate services to more minor destinations. Also, economically operating more frequent, but smaller trains is difficult. There are a range of other safety and fire prevention rules – all of which are important. Furthermore, the range of signalling and power supply systems in the various countries increases operating costs.

There is also the issue of passport control. While it was acknowledged in the early design of Channel Tunnel services that there would be border controls in place over the years, these have become more and more onerous, not less – as may have been expected – and both France and the UK now operate rigorous traveller entry and exit controls. Thus, any passenger service has to be operated via a secure immigration area or the passengers need to leave the train then pass immigration controls while the train is searched before traversing the tunnel. There was also for a number of years substantial issues of migrants trying to access trains as they moved towards the tunnel portal in Fréthun, France.

In addition, it is increasingly hard to see, as a user, how a second operator could physically use the congested passenger waiting facilities – particularly at St Pancras International. The new 800 passenger Eurostar trains and need for passengers to arrive early enough to get through security tends to stretch these facilities to their operational limits. A solution may be to use alternative boarding facilities at, for example, Stratford International in east London or Ashford in Kent, as well as Charles de Gaulle Airport and Marne la Vallee in Paris, but again, the immigration and security controls will lead to substantial cost to any new operator.

But for the consumer, a good transport service is not being turned into a great range of services with various destinations, service levels and price points. There are surely more destinations that warrant, can support and would substantially benefit from direct services via the tunnel than Paris, Brussels and now Amsterdam! Having supported this huge infrastructure project via a range of public subsidies it is incumbent on the public authorities in the current three primary markets to create the structure that would challenge a quasi-monopoly and ensure that a range of public needs are being met.

One of the early objectives of the Channel Tunnel was to create a regional labour and business market to grow the economy of Kent and Sussex in England and Hauts de Nord (Pas de Calais) in France. In terms of a public transport service via the Tunnel this has simply not transpired. Compare the situation to that of the Oresund bridge/tunnel linking the regions around Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden. This has transformed regional travel and in particular linked the more vigorous Copenhagen economy to available labour and lower cost housing around Malmo. We have simply not used the Channel Tunnel to link the business markets in the two countries via fast, affordable public transport services. I discount the option of accessing the cross-border market via a private vehicle taken through the tunnel shuttle services.

In fact, Ashford station in south Kent has had to fight for the retention of any services versus the more lucratively located Ebbsfleet station in north Kent. Today Ashford is only served by four daily return trains to Brussels or Paris as well as less frequent services to Disneyland outside Paris and seasonal ski or Mediterranean services. Calais-Frethun equally has a minimal service. This is not the basis for a vigorous cross border employment market that links together nearby regional economies and makes best use of economic resources.

New mobility is about choice and transparency and we are seeing this develop in many types of market. It is time to see real choice develop in cross-Channel services

The Channel Tunnel is an engineering marvel and has rightly changed travel opportunities for millions of people. It is used by car and truck shuttles, freight services as well as the Eurostar passenger services. Eurostar in turn offers an excellent service record. However, the vision and ambition of only one operator in this important and lucrative market, is surely not sufficient! Moreover, the large former state monopolies such as SNCF, Deutsche Bahn, etc should be able to be challenged by newer emerging train operators. New mobility is about choice and transparency and we are seeing this develop in many types of market. It is time to see real choice develop in cross-Channel services as well as in order to further grow the market, to develop market opportunities that have not been seen as priorities for the existing operator and to more accurately service the wide range of customer needs.

The public authorities in the UK, Belgium and France, as well as the EU, should not be a passive voice in this debate, but should be enabling and actively pursuing this agenda to support the wider needs of customers and the economy of Europe.

 

About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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