30 years after the Channel Tunnel opening, Eurostar rivals have failed to launch

If the ticket prices and frequency of services were on par, trains would always beat planes as the best way to cross the Channel. But while Eurostar remains the civilised alternative to UK airports, it is often more costly and has seen services from London to Disneyland Paris, Marseille, Avignon and Lyon axed since 2018.

Now the operator, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in November, is perhaps closer than ever to seeing competition on the rails.

Among the named contenders are Virgin Group, Evolyn (a UK-registered, Spanish-owned firm) and Dutch start-up Heuro.

Evolyn had suggested a launch as early as next year. A €50m show of support from Getlink, which runs the Channel Tunnel, could speed up the race. The Channel tunnel itself turned 30 on Monday.

The Financial Times reports that the operator has offered the investment pot to encourage services from a Eurostar challenger.

Yann Leriche, chief executive of Getlink, told the newspaper that there were at least five companies interested in running new passenger trains between the UK and the Continent. He said that about 400 trains use the tunnel each day, but that there was capacity for 1,000.

If there’s space for more than one Eurostar rival, it could, in theory, make cross-Channel services more affordable.

As Gavin Haines wrote for i, the liberalisation of the rail network elsewhere in Europe has broken down monopolies and led to a reduction in prices.

But there are significant challenges facing new operators. One is the investment required in ordering trains that meet the tunnel’s safety rules.

Many others are revealed by Eurostar’s recent history.

The adherence to post-Brexit rules is among them. Following the end of the Brexit transition period, there are additional passport checks required for entry to the EU from the UK, and for travel from the UK, these are carried out by French passport control officers at St Pancras International.

Stamping UK passports to ensure that Britons are adhering to the 90-day rule for travel to the EU (non-EU residents cannot remain in the bloc for more than 90 out of 180 days) can increase queueing times at terminals, and not all of them have capacity to hold the extra numbers of waiting customers.

In January 2023, it was revealed that Eurostar’s morning trains are being capped at only 550 out of 900 seats on trains from St Pancras, but also abroad; trains are leaving Amsterdam Centraal station almost three-quarters empty.

The launch of a new fast-track process for some passengers helped to alleviate congestion. However, in February this year, HS1, the owner of the lines and stations between London and the Channel tunnel, warned that planning for the introduction of new EU border rules at St Pancras was inadequate. These checks are still set to be introduced in October through the Entry/Exit System (EES), which will replace passport-stamping and will require the collection of non-EU travellers’ data, including a facial image and fingerprints, on the first visit to the EU after the system comes into force. The data for most non-EU passport holders will then be kept on the system for three years.

At the time, it was said only 24 kiosks for EES checks had been allocated to St Pancras by the French Government and that 50 would be needed at peak times.

Brexit and Covid have also been blamed for the suspension of stops at Eurostar terminals in Kent and the cancellation of the operator’s direct service from London to Disneyland Paris.

Other challenges cannot be assigned to either upheaval, however. Last-minute strikes by French Eurotunnel staff scuppered the plans of thousands of travellers last Christmas. Then, on 30 December, flooding on a tunnel outside of London led Eurostar to cancel services from the UK capital, with about 30,000 customers affected.

Eurostar will remain the smoother alternative to flying to Paris for the Olympics. But could a rival soon lead to more options for rail travellers?

First comes the test of EES. Rail expert Mark Smith, who runs the rail travel website The Man in Seat 61, suggested to i last year that there could be ways to boost capacity at St Pancras to allow for new operators. Stratford International has also been suggested as a potential terminal for new services.

With the practicalities of launching EES in October, it is hard to see a new cross-Channel rail operator selling tickets by this time next year.