As travel has surged back from the pandemic, issues that the industry faced prior to the precipitous drop in travel are coming home to roost. That’s the case at Eurostar, the high-speed passenger rail line that connects London to Europe under the English Channel.
The introduction of border controls post-Brexit at Eurostar’s London and Paris terminals have created bottlenecks that, given the current infrastructure, are limiting the railroad’s ability to fully capture the dramatic surge in travel demand, Eurostar Group CEO Jacques Damas told the chair of the UK Parliament’s Transport Committee in a letter Monday.
Despite the installation of new e-gates and customs booths at London’s St. Pancras, station capacity is roughly 30 percent lower — or 1,500 people an hour versus 2,200 in 2019 — than it was before the pandemic, Damas claimed. “It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the center of London,” he said.
The situation Eurostar faces is reminiscent of the struggles at U.S. airports when new security rules were implemented after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Many airports were forced to adopt less-than-ideal solutions to accommodate security needs in spaces designed for less intrusive checks. Redesigning airport terminals for these needs continues to this day. For one: Denver airport’s $1 billion over budget terminal project is focused of fixing the security queue problems that were created two decades ago.
Eurostar, which is owned by French rail company SNCF and merged with Belgian and Dutch high-speed rail operator Thalys earlier this year, was operating about 75 percent of its pre-pandemic trains in July. Corporate travel, which is a key part of the line’s business, was at 70 percent of 2019 levels. But these numbers lag many of Eurostar’s continental peers.
SNCF, which operates the French high-speed TGV rail network, reported earlier in September that corporate travel across its passenger trains stood at 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Demand for travel to some destinations this summer was 10 percent above 2019 levels. And, in the first half of 2022, revenues for SNCF’s intercity passenger rail division, SNCF Voyageurs, were down just 4 percent compared to three years ago.
Elsewhere on the continent, high-speed rail operators reported strong passenger numbers this summer. Ridership on Germany’s Deutsche Bahn was up compared to 2019, though it likely benefitted from the country’s 9 Euro Ticket offering for local and regional trains, while Spain’s Renfe recovered to 91 percent of three years ago.
For now, at least according to Eurostar CEO Damas, the railroad may have to operate fewer trains than it did in 2019 through at least 2025. That may mean the recent decision to suspend popular service to Disneyland Paris could be extended for several years. In addition to the Brexit-related border control rules, Eurostar’s finances struggled by the lack of state aid during the pandemic, and a shortage of maintenance staff, he said.