Before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, across the European continent, serious long-distance train travel was clearly on the up. With the Scandinavians leading the way and central Europe following, night train services – sleepers that can make crossing the continent take no time out of your day – were being restored, revived and renewed. They were offering far more pleasant and vastly more environmentally friendly options than the budget airlines that had almost wiped them out in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Even making a real difference in daytime travel from the UK, Eurostar had introduced direct services to Amsterdam. (Declaration of interest – I caught one in the early months and it was a breeze, if still annoyingly only one-way, with official intransigence requiring a stop in Brussels on the return leg, something now fixed with a direct service both ways.) By the summer of 2019 it had 20 per cent of the travel market to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, literally taking planes out of the skies.
And, of course, Eurostar is the established, obvious journey option for us to reach our closest neighbours – and central European Union operations. In 2019, Eurostar carried over 11 million passengers, providing over 80 per cent of journeys between London and each of Paris and Brussels. And it is a link to rail travel far beyond. The furthest I’ve used it as a start for rail/ferry journeys, heading north and south respectively, is Helsinki and Marrakesh – and I’ve got my eye on Moscow. The train offers 80 per cent lower emissions per route than flying, saving 60,000 short-haul flights each year (about one-third of Gatwick’s annual aircraft movements).
We were still in the situation where the best way to make an easy booking for a complicated journey was with the guide of an independent website started by a single individual, the brilliant Man in Seat Sixty-One, but it finally looked like governments were starting to realise this is the future of cross-continental travel.
Now, of course, with Covid-19, there’s precious little travel happening at all – rightly, given the need to contain infection and prevent the spread of new variants. But we will come out the other side of the pandemic, and although we can expect a lot less travel than before – particularly business travel – we will need these trains to get to conferences, to bring diplomats together, to join up business opportunities, as well of course as to get the chance to explore our continent, meet our neighbours and even chase some sunshine or snow.
This makes the current, precarious state of Eurostar – the only company that currently connects us by rail to the rest of the continent – a huge issue for the UK, for business, and for the environment. But sadly, like so many other issues with the EU, it’s become a Brexit political football game, with the British government saying that because the company is 55 per cent owned by the French state, primary responsibility for rescue rests in Paris. Now, aside from ignoring the fact that it is a British-registered company with the majority of its jobs in the UK, this raises a whole lot of other issues about the problems of privatisation, why public services should clearly be held in public hands, and run for the public good. But we start from where we are now, and that is with the single passenger rail link to the continent in grave danger.
Eurostar has, up to now, asked for and taken much less in government rescue than the budget airlines that have been polluting our skies and heating our planet (while generally giving us miserable journeys). It’s done everything it possibly could to help itself, reducing costs by 36 per cent in 2020. Shareholders – including the French – have provided £210 million of support and it took out a £400 million commercial loan last June.
The company now is asking for access to guaranteed loans as a matter of urgency – something that’s been available to airlines, airports and domestic train companies for some time. In the longer term, it is asking for a significant restructuring of access charges in the UK and in France. It was allowed to pay only ‘real cost’ charges in 2021 for track access, with ‘capital’ charges being compensated by governments to HS1 and SNCF, which would be a major help.
Relationships between Westminster and Paris, in particular at the moment, are difficult, but whatever games our Government might want to play, Eurostar, so crucial to our future connections with the continent, must not be turned into political football. As much as some in the Government might wish it, we are part of Europe. We cannot be towed over to become a US state, and we need good, environmentally friendly links available to our nearest (and furthest) neighbours.
Grant Schapps might say: “The physical nature of the tunnel wouldn’t disappear, or the infrastructure.” But aside from the disruption of services, and to turmoil for the 2,000 staff, the idea of allowing Eurostar to collapse and then setting up something new is profoundly, ridiculously economically and environmentally wasteful.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t let it collapse” might not be exactly the traditional saying, but it definitely applies here. And the practical reality is that Eurostar is a lot more important to our islands off the coast of the continent than it is to Paris - crucial even. Let’s admit our dependence, be honest about our need to remain connected, and not play games with the future of that connection.