French transport minister makes commitment to struggling operator

Eurostar patronage has slumped by 95%

Reports suggest that the French and UK governments will step in to provide financial support to troubled cross-Channel rail operator Eurostar.

Eurostar has seen passenger numbers slump by 95% since the start of the pandemic and it now operates just one train each day between London and Brussels and London and Paris.

The situation has been exacerbated by further travel restrictions on both sides of the Channel, including the need for pre-departure Covid testing, that could decimate what little traffic remains.

The operator is majority-owned by SNCF, the French state rail operator, which owns 55% of the company. SNCB, the Belgian rail operator holds a 5% shareholding while the UK Government’s 40% was sold to a consortium of private pension funds in 2015.

The French transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, told an Assemblée nationale committee on Thursday that the state would “be there at Eurostar’s side to maintain this strategic link between our two countries”.

The Guardian has reported that Djebbari said the French Government was working with the UK on “mechanisms for aid, proportional to everyone’s involvement in Eurostar,” to keep the business going. He said he had been in discussion for several weeks with the British transport secretary, Grant Shapps.

Eurostar chief executive, Jacques Damas, told Agence France-Presse on Monday that “catastrophe is possible” and it is understood that the shareholders have pumped over €200m into the business to keep it running.

Amid claims in the UK that Eurostar should seek a bailout from its majority owner, the company argues that the UK Government has pumped billions into the UK’s rail operators and provided loans to major UK airlines including easyJet and British Airways.

The Department for Transport says it has been speaking regularly with Eurostar since the start of the pandemic and will continue talks with the French Government.

Huw Merriman, the Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle who chairs the Transport Committee, has called for the UK Government to support Eurostar.

“We simply cannot afford to lose Eurostar to this pandemic,” he said. “The company contributes £80m each year to the UK economy. It is unique in offering an environmentally friendly, direct, connection to mainland Europe.

“Like airlines, quarantine and travel restrictions have blighted Eurostar’s access to its markets during the pandemic. Unlike airlines, Eurostar has been shut out from government loans that have offered a lifeline.

“Eurostar’s traffic has fallen by over 95%; services have been stripped back to a bare minimum. It needs a joint, bespoke UK-French solution to help it through this crisis.”

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