Post-Brexit border checks have slowed the speed at which Eurostar passengers pass through London St Pancras on their way to Paris, reducing the terminal’s capacity by one-third, according to the cross-Channel rail company’s boss.
The rail operator’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, said central London had only avoided the kind of chaos and queues seen at Channel ports this summer because Eurostar was running fewer trains.
He said the additional border checks now required, with UK nationals having to have their passports stamped, was adding at least 15 seconds per passenger. In London St Pancras International, even after upgrading the border gates, and with all booths staffed, the operator could only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers an hour, compared with 2,200 before the Brexit transition period ended, Damas said.
Damas outlined Eurostar’s problems in a letter to the Conservative MP Huw Merriman, the chair of the Commons transport select committee, who had requested an explanation for Eurostar cutting back services to Kent stations and stopping its direct Disneyland Paris route from London next year.
He told Merriman: “It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.”
The company would not resume operations at either of its Kent stations – Ashford and Ebbsfleet – until at least 2025, to concentrate “vital border police” at St Pancras, Damas said.
The chief executive, who is due to hand over the reins next week to Gwendoline Cazenave, said Eurostar was also hampered by high UK track charges on the route to the Channel, three times more expensive per mile than it pays in France.
Its finances were further battered by the refusal of the government to offer it state-backed loans – as airlines received – during the Covid pandemic, Damas said, and he warned fares would remain high for the foreseeable future. Eurostar is now paying high rates of interest on some €500m (£450m) in commercial debt incurred to ensure its survivals as passenger revenue disappeared during the travel bans.
There could be more trouble in store for the operator when the EU brings in EES, the entry-exit system, next year.
Damas said the system “hangs over us”, and is expected to mean that travellers from non-EU countries, now including the UK, will have to have their fingerprints scanned and a photograph taken to register them on to a database, as well as eventually pay a fee to visit the EU.
He added that on the UK side in particular, there was “considerable uncertainty about the ability of customers to pay in the context of the current and forecast pressures on the cost of living. At the same time the business itself faces nearly £100m in increased inflationary pressures.”
He warned that he had a duty to “secure my company’s future [and] not to overcommit.”
The UK government controversially sold its stake in Eurostar, the “green link” to Europe, to private pension funds in 2015.