Eurostar is expanding to Marseille and Amsterdam. But why has it taken 20 years?

Eurostar's new e320 train can reach speeds of up to 200mph, cutting journey times by 15 minutes. Image: Getty.

The Channel Tunnel is one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century. It revolutionised trans-manche travel when it opened in 1994, making it possible to travel from the centre of London to the centre of Paris or Brussels in just a couple of hours.

The new tunnel, in fact, was used by two different train services, serving two different markets. Le Shuttle (invariably with the French prefix) was a roll-on, roll-off service, which carries cars under the Channel itself. It looks after a sizeable chunk of the car, truck and coach markets for day trippers and holidaymakers; and, barring the occasional incident, it’s been an enormous success, and in the past few years, has celebrated record passenger levels.

Eurostar, meanwhile, was dedicated to the international, intercity passenger market: business travellers, weekend breakers, families headed for the then new EuroDisney.

There, though, growth has been slower. Its owners predicted that, by 2004, it’d be carrying 21m passengers a year through the tunnel. In the event, the figure was 7m. Was there ever enough potential in the basic London-Paris/Brussels network? And, if not, why has it taken so long for the network's regular services to expand, beyond those three cities and occasional holiday services beyond?

Northern flights

Back in the early 1990s, when Britain's railways were still under the monopoly control of British Rail, there were ambitious plans for through high speed passenger services, branded Regional Eurostar and NightStar. These would run from major UK cities to a variety of continental European destinations, making the most of the new infrastructure and plugging the UK into the European high speed network. New trains were ordered to complement the main Eurostar fleet; these included specialised overnight sleeper rolling stock, built specially for new services linking Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield with the continent.

The problem was, there were no genuine high speed lines in Britain for the trains to run on. There were only the East and West Coast Main Lines, with a relatively snail-like top speed of 125mph. As a result, journey times on the UK side could not match the genuine high speed networks on mainland Europe, and while British Rail did begin running a shadow service of regional trains connecting with Eurostar at Waterloo in 1995, these trains ran almost empty. They’d ended completely by 1997.

In any case, a nine-hour rail journey time between Glasgow and London simply couldn’t compete with pioneering budget airlines. These were then in their infancy, but were soon staking their claims on a growing and lucrative short-haul European market. So, the dedicated train fleets were dispersed far and wide; some were sold for considerably less than their true value, in some cases not even completed by the factory.

Southern dreams

Fast forward 15 years, and Eurostar is now owned by a mix of European state railways, Canadian pension funds and a UK infrastructure specialist. And, at long last, it’s going some way towards expanding the choice of destinations served – although only on its own terms, and without the threat of competition from another operator to keep it on its toes.

For the past two decades, the vast majority of Eurostar trains have run from London to Paris or Brussels. (A few seasonal have gone beyond to holiday destinations, such as Avignon or the French Alps.) But next month, Marseille (via Lyon and Avignon) will at long last be added to the list of destinations; Amsterdam will follow next year. The new services will compete with both the airlines and the ferry route from Harwich that connects both London and the Dutch capital through the rail networks on either side.

By the end of the year, a new 17-strong fleet of trains will begin to enter service, too. A £1bn combination of Italian design and German engineering, each of the new trains will carry nearly 900 passengers – about a fifth more than the trains in the original fleet.

Yet today, almost 21 years after the Channel Tunnel opened, Eurostar remains the only international rail operator serving the UK – and while it is possible to make connecting high speed train journeys across Europe, the direct journey opportunities remain limited. Rail's carbon footprint is low compared to air travel, but the comparative lack of flexibility of rail often makes the latter appear more attractive by default. Fares are generally more expensive, too; looking ahead three months for a long weekend, a British Airways flight from Gatwick to Paris Charles de Gaulle at £110 return compares unfavourably with Eurostar's £159 (although the city centre connectivity of the latter could be said to be a considerable advantage).

Uncompetitive tensions

In 2010, it looked as if a challenger to Eurostar's dominance would be up and running within a few years. German state rail operator Deutsche Bahn proposed London-Cologne-Frankfurt trains, and even brought one to St Pancras to demonstrate the concept.

As of 2013, though, these plans were on ice. Technical and regulatory barriers have prevented progress being made on services between the UK and Germany, mainly relating to the design of the trains. The originally proposed fleet was not considered sufficiently fireproof for the Channel Tunnel, despite the vast majority of fires in the tunnel since it opened being caused by lorries on freight shuttle trains. A revised design with the necessary fireproofing was ordered, but two years on, there is still no prospect of the DB plans being put into place.

Aside from how to get trains through the tunnel, there are also questions over the lack of capacity on the rail network in northern France. High Speed 1, the line between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras International, is only about half full, which allows for excellent reliability on the British side – but what happens when high speed trains meet congestion at the other end? Without French investment in their equivalent infrastructure, LGV Nord, the “paths” do not exist, and the delays might stack up.

Problems remain on this side of the Channel, too. HS1 will remain physically isolated from the future High Speed 2 line to the Midlands and the North of England – despite the London terminus of the latter being tantalisingly close by at Euston. And when HS2 Chairman Sir David Higgins reported his initial review of the project in March 2014, he recommended that the controversial HS1-HS2 link be cut from the plans, saving the best part of £1bn. And the government agreed.

So, Londoners will soon have access to direct trains to the Netherlands and the South of France. But for most of the UK, rail connections to the rest of Europe remains a pipe dream.

Paul Prentice is Assistant News Editor at RAIL magazine.


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.