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?
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.
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).
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.