Running on empty: why are so many Eurostar seats free?
Q You wrote about how Eurostar is leaving hundreds of seats empty on trains between London and Paris. Why not build larger stations/better border control facilities? Wasn’t there passport control before Brexit too?
A Yes, there certainly were passport checks for Eurostar travellers using Channel Tunnel passenger trains before Brexit. The UK, like Ireland, was always outside the Schengen frontierfree area. But the rule for any EU national going across the border between a Schengen and non-Schengen country was
simply that they needed a passport or ID card. Frontier officials could only check that it was a valid travel document and that it belonged to the person who had presented it. That is still the case for EU nationals leaving the UK. It is a very quick transaction. It has been replaced by mandatory stamping of British passports by EU frontier police on outward and return journeys, as well as more significant checks for Europeans travelling to the UK.
The increase in transaction time means long queues. Bluntly, Eurostar was faced with the choice of letting the lines build up, which makes for a stressful passenger experience and delayed trains, or restricting the number of tickets sold. Yes, building bigger facilities and staffing them fully would solve the problem. But the Eurostar areas of London St Pancras International, Brussels Midi and Paris Nord are relatively small promotions of the total area. They were all constructed on the basis of lighttouch, formalities, rather than the stringent checks that the UK requested after Brexit.
Expanding them within the confines of 19th-century stations (in the case of London and Paris) would require comprehensive remodelling of the whole station at a cost of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds. Eurostar, which suffered financially more than almost any other travel company over the coronavirus pandemic, is addressing the problem to try to deliver a reasonable experience in difficult circumstances while seeking to speed up transactions.
Regrettably, in the short term the European Union Entry Exit System – requiring fingerprints and biometrics from all non-EU travellers – is on its way before the end of this year. The capacity problem will get worse before it improves.
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