The extra passport checks the UK has requested after leaving the EU are “unsustainable”: That is the scathing view of Jacques Damas, outgoing Eurostar CEO.
The boss of the cross-channel train operator revealed that post-Brexit border regulations have reduced capacity on London to Brussels and Paris services by a third – forcing Eurostar to “charge our customers higher prices”.
Earlier this month, Huw Merriman, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, wrote to Eurostar expressing concern at the impact of the ongoing closure of the international stations Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent. Trains to Brussels and Paris ended their connections there when the coronavirus pandemic began.
They will not open until 2025 at the earliest. Eurostar will also discontinue direct trains to Disneyland Paris in June 2023.
In his response to the parliamentary committee, Mr Damas explained in harrowing detail the damage Brexit has done to international rail travel to and from the UK.
His letter, which Mr Merriman published, begins by saying: “I fully understand the disappointment that many feel at the continued closure of Kent’s train stations and the recent announcements regarding Disneyland Paris – a popular destination for many of ours British customers including those previously from Ashford.
“I also appreciate the economic impact of such a decision on the Southeast and the loss of choice for individual travelers. I can understand people comparing these decisions to the recovery in travel this year and wondering why we haven’t moved on to reopening stations.”
While financial constraints and technical issues were partly to blame, Mr Damas explained that Brexit has reduced Eurostar capacity by 30 per cent – simply because the new passport requirements take time and require more space.
“Additional border controls will apply to UK citizens wishing to enter Schengen, as well as to all ‘third-country nationals’. As around 40 per cent of our customers are British nationals, this has led to a significant increase in processing times at stations.
“The stamping of UK passports by continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times.
“Even with all cabins occupied, St Pancras can currently handle a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour, up from 2,200 in 2019.
“Just the fact that Eurostar has limited capacity trains and has significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels means we don’t see daily queues in central London akin to those in the English Channel ports.
“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the medium to long term.”
With supply so constrained, Mr Damas said, “we are currently unable to respond to the high demand on our main inter-capital routes”.
He explained that the reopening of intermediate stations, where demand and average fares are much lower, “would make things worse as it would take key Border Police resources away from London”.
Officials at the major terminals – London, Brussels and Paris – carry five or ten times more passengers at the major Eurostar terminals than at the intermediate stations.
As an immediate consequence, Mr. Damas writes: “Despite the return to tourist traffic, Eurostar is currently unable to pursue a volume and growth strategy. We need to focus on the core routes that make the maximum contribution per train and charge our customers higher prices.
“The whole focus of this effort is to manage and reduce the debt we have had to incur; Until then, there is no prospect of dividends to shareholders.”
Mr Damas revealed the severe financial damage caused by the pandemic, with shareholders pouring £250million into the company – almost double the total dividends since Eurostar was founded.
Revenue has been slashed by 95 per cent for 15 months in 2020-21 and the Omicron surge in December 2021 and early 2022 cost Eurostar at least €50m (£43m) more.
“Eurostar had to find an extra £500m in trade debt to survive,” he said.
Mr Damas added: “The uncertainty surrounding the EU’s Entry/Exit System (EES) – much discussed with the Committee – hangs over us.”
The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the UK and European Union means British travelers to the EU will be photographed and fingerprinted from November 2023, increasing transaction time.
In reply, Mr. Merriman tweeted: “The transport committee will write to the new railway minister [Kevin Foster] and the rail regulator for observations and interventions in support of Eurostar – a vital cog in our transport system.”
The Independent has asked the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of the Interior for an answer.
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