ON THE RIGHT TRACK?

Safety re­quire­ments, tech­ni­cal is­sues and a lack of com­pe­ti­tion may be putting the brakes on progress when it comes to Euro­pean rail travel

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS -

The fu­ture of rail travel to Europe

Back in 2010 there was ex­cite­ment in the air at St Pan­cras In­ter­na­tional. Ger­many’s Deutsche Bahn had just brought one of its high-speed In­ter­ci­tyEx­press (ICE) trains to Lon­don, and an­nounced it would com­pete against Eurostar, which held the monopoly on pas­sen­ger ser­vices through the Chan­nel Tun­nel.

Deutsche Bahn in­tended to of­fer a fresh prod­uct, run­ning its own ICEs be­tween Lon­don, Benelux and Ger­many, but it never hap­pened. Af­ter years of frus­tra­tion in deal­ing with the var­i­ous au­thor­i­ties, it de­cided to throw in the towel. But why?

Many peo­ple are not aware that the Chan­nel Tun­nel has spe­cific safety and tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments for trains that wish to tran­sit un­der their own power. Cur­rently, only Eurostar (which is ma­jor­ity owned by France’s SNCF) has the cor­rect train­sets. No other op­er­a­tors have them, or in­deed ap­pear will­ing to in­vest in them.

So how did Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed train even make it to St Pan­cras? Few in the me­dia re­alised that it was towed from Calais to Lon­don us­ing the Tun­nel’s own diesel lo­co­mo­tives. The ICE was not per­mit­ted to tran­sit the Tun­nel un­der its own power, let alone utilise the sig­nalling sys­tems on this side of the Chan­nel. →

Paris Nord will be en­larged in time for the Paris Olympics

NEED FOR CHANGE

In­ter­na­tional rail within Europe is a com­plex af­fair; ev­ery coun­try hav­ing its own tech­ni­cal and safety stan­dards. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE had mas­tered the sys­tems in its own coun­try, plus those of Bel­gium and France, but it had failed in the UK at the fi­nal hur­dle.

Rail trav­ellers’ hopes for a greater choice were again raised in July 2018 when Getlink – for­merly Euro­tun­nel – com­mis­sioned an ex­ten­sive study, which con­cluded that a bud­get rail op­er­a­tor was needed to in­crease its own (Chan­nel Tun­nel) busi­ness and, in do­ing so, meet the de­mands of to­day’s trav­ellers.

When Eurostar was launched in No­vem­ber 1994, the prod­uct it of­fered was akin to air­line prac­tice. Pas­sen­gers had to check-in be­fore­hand, there was free cater­ing (for some), and reser­va­tions were com­pul­sory, but what worked 24 years ago may no longer be rel­e­vant to­day. Look at how much the short-haul air­line prod­uct has changed since 1994 (a lot), com­pared to the Eurostar prod­uct (not much).

LOOK­ING TO THE FU­TURE

Getlink hopes that a new prod­uct, a sort of Eurostar “light”, would be vi­able. Aimed at younger trav­ellers, the sur­vey es­ti­mates that a bud­get train ser­vice could be car­ry­ing two mil­lion pas­sen­gers an­nu­ally within five years of be­ing launched.

Getlink would ben­e­fit be­cause the added trains would pro­vide it with an ad­di­tional €285 mil­lion (£257 mil­lion) an­nu­ally in toll fees.

To avoid con­flict with ex­ist­ing train com­pa­nies the new ser­vice would be us­ing out-of-town sta­tions in both Lon­don and Paris. That’s no bad thing. Paris Gare du Nord (the ar­rival point for Eurostar) is con­gested and, at peak times, it strug­gles to cope with pas­sen­ger flow, as each Eurostar train ac­com­mo­dates up to 900 trav­ellers. How­ever, a ma­jor ex­pan­sion is planned for the sta­tion in prepa­ra­tion for the Paris Olympic Games due to take place in 2024.

Any bud­get ser­vice may route to Paris via slower, non high-speed rail lines. Why? Be­cause although the jour­ney would take longer, the train firm would not have to pay the higher costs of us­ing the high-speed line.

In fact, what the Getlink study sug­gested is that any new op­er­a­tor should adopt what SNCF is al­ready →

do­ing at home; in other words, its Ouigo (ouigo.com) TGVs could adopt the low-cost car­rier (LCC) busi­ness model, while Izy (pro­nounced “easy”, izy.com), the bud­get spin-off op­er­ated by Thalys, takes the slower “clas­sic” lines be­tween Paris and Brus­sels.

Un­for­tu­nately, what the study failed to men­tion is that, as pre­vi­ously men­tioned, no other op­er­a­tor be­sides Eurostar has the cor­rect trains for the Chan­nel Tun­nel. So un­less Eurostar it­self in­tro­duces a bud­get ser­vice, it could be years be­fore an­other op­er­a­tor en­ters the mar­ket, even if it were pre­pared to make the in­vest­ment in the cor­rect trains.

Says Nick Brooks, sec­re­tary gen­eral of All­rail (an al­liance of new rail op­er­a­tors in Europe), “We be­lieve that com­pe­ti­tion through the Chan­nel Tun­nel in the long-dis­tance mar­ket would ben­e­fit con­sumers, the rail sec­tor and ul­ti­mately Eurostar it­self. In main­land Europe there is com­pe­ti­tion in other trans­port modes, such as fer­ries, flights, long-dis­tance [road] coaches, and now on some rail routes. Why shouldn’t pas­sen­ger rail be able to ben­e­fit too?”

NEW HIGH-SPEED LINES

So what about Eurostar and its fu­ture plans? Its e320 Siemens train­sets (un­like the orig­i­nal Al­stom ones) al­low Eurostar to ex­tend its reach be­yond France and Bel­gium. “We are al­ways look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties,” a spokesper­son for Eurostar told Busi­ness Trav­eller, “and the new high-speed ParisBordeaux line, which means a di­rect ser­vice from Lon­don [to Bordeaux], is some­thing we could con­sider. How­ever, our cur­rent fo­cus is to make Am­s­ter­dam [a route launched in April] a suc­cess.

“With over four mil­lion pas­sen­gers trav­el­ling by air last year [there are flights to the Dutch cap­i­tal from six air­ports serv­ing Lon­don], the po­ten­tial for the new Am­s­ter­dam ser­vice is sig­nif­i­cant. We hope to reach an agree­ment to op­er­ate di­rect Am­s­ter­dam-Lon­don trains [cur­rently pas­sen­gers must change at Brus­sels Midi sta­tion] by the end of 2019.”

It’s true that Eurostar does of­fer some low fares, but these are re­stric­tive, with lit­tle avail­abil­ity at week­ends and other busi­ness times. Yes Eurostar has Snap fares (snap.eurostar.com) for travel booked at short no­tice, but these are overly re­stric­tive. They ap­pear geared to­wards younger trav­ellers who can be more flex­i­ble.

Iron­i­cally, SNCF al­ready caters for the Lon­don-Paris bud­get mar­ket with its day and overnight bus ser­vices branded Ouibus. Hav­ing trawled through Ouibus.com (which also op­er­ates ser­vices within main­land Europe), I find the acro­nym SNCF con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence.

Fi­nally, as Nick Brooks notes, “One sin­gle op­er­a­tor [ie a monopoly trans­port op­er­a­tor] can­not es­tab­lish if it is op­er­at­ing in the most at­trac­tive or ef­fi­cient man­ner. And the like­li­hood is very high that it is not.”

Only Eurostar has the cor­rect trains for the Chan­nel Tun­nel

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