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.


Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.

What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.