Vision of international rail traffic still awaits full realisation

The Channel Tunnel opened in a burst of excitement and optimism in 1994. When Eurostar started its twice daily “discovery” service between London and Paris that November, I took a detour from my normal journey to work to stand on the platform at Vauxhall station to watch the morning departure from Waterloo go through. It was a long, fully loaded train, and I felt a sense of real excitement.

The initial Paris service was planned to be the start of a blossoming network, with regional Eurostars from Birmingham and Manchester, even from Glasgow and Edinburgh. There were to be overnight services too, including a train with portions from Swansea and Plymouth, to be operated with a fleet of vastly expensive, high quality sleeping cars.

A network of freight terminals was also developed, with through trains between Britain and a range of European destinations; these would provide the longer hauls which would enable rail to compete with road haulage, creating a major new market for rail freight.

A few years later, High Speed 1 was to be taken forward as a private sector project, built on extraordinarily bullish forecasts of passenger growth, blissfully ignoring the impact of low-cost airlines.

Nearly thirty years later, it’s salutary and depressing to look back.

The night trains were the first casualty. These would have been an extraordinarily high cost operation, at a time when overnight services were in structural decline across Europe. Anglo-Scottish services were reduced from six each way (seven in summer when Fort William got its own service!) to just two in each direction. The “Nightstar” services were essentially politically driven – a sop to the country beyond London – and were stifled at birth, before the fleet was completed. Some of the vehicles were sold to VIA Rail, the state owned Canadian long-distance operator, but VIA’s long distance services were then cut back. A few vehicles are used on the thrice-weekly train between Halifax and Montreal, albeit after significant modifications to achieve reliable operation in the Canadian winter.

The regional day services were also never introduced. These were to be operated by a fleet of shorter Eurostar trains, as most of the stations to be served did not have long enough platforms to allow operation of full-length sets. Again, the potential demand was limited, with no possibility of sufficiently frequent services to attract high yield business travel; the market is much better suited to small jets which, for example, can provide services for out-and-back business travel between Birmingham and Paris. A daily high-capacity train might attract some leisure travel, but only at low-cost airline prices.

In the Schengen area, regular trains between, for example, Brussels and Berlin load well but not of course with passengers travelling from origin to destination. But only international passengers are allowed on Eurostar because of security and immigration concerns, so the trains would have to stop at dedicated, secure platforms – quite a big ask at, say, Birmingham New Street! So, like the night services, regional Eurostars were quietly dropped, just as they have subsequently as part of HS2.

Even the London services face serious challenges. Airline-style security and border checks severely limit the passenger throughput at St. Pancras. The passenger lounges there and at Gare du Nord are already grim, and this will get worse. Peak capacity through the stations is 30% lower than pre-Brexit, and new requirements being introduced by the EU will require biometric data, further reducing passenger numbers.

Also, HS1’s access charge structure is based on a “jam-spread” charge per train. In contrast, domestic operating companies pay a high fixed charge to Network Rail but only marginal costs for additional services, so for example there are two trains an hour between London and Cardiff. These are by no means full but high frequency drives volume growth. Might a similar charges structure on HS1 have led to a similar frequency to Paris?

In a parallel universe, border controls would be carried out on the train, as originally planned, and there would be no special security regime – in the same way that vehicles using the Channel Tunnel car shuttles are not checked. The HS1 charging regime would incentivise Eurostar to run more frequent services on its core Paris and Brussels routes, with through services to a wider range of destinations – cities like Frankfurt and Bordeaux – and London might join the resurrected network of night services across Europe. Travelling by train to Paris would be as straightforward as going to Bristol or Sheffield. But this won’t happen – it seems inevitable that Eurostar will focus on running fewer bur fuller trains, with higher prices.

The position for freight is even more dismal. The initial start-up intermodal trains never flourished, not helped by high charges for the tunnel transit, sporadic industrial action in France and high operating costs, with customs checks and traction changes at each end of the tunnel. There are now only a handful of freight trains through the tunnel each day. Despite high fuel and HGV driver costs, almost all the potential market goes by road, with all the environmental costs that this entails even though, in principle, rail should be competitive for many flows.

Back in my parallel universe, there would be a network of scheduled container trains linking main centres across Britain with Europe, making a useful contribution towards achieving zero carbon. But I won’t hold my breath.


RMT called off the strikes scheduled for the 5th, 7th and 9th of November in the late afternoon of the 4th. Inevitably, there were going to be problems in restoring normal services quickly, and most operators only ran the “strike” service on the Saturday, although Merseyrail managed to run through to the normal end of service. 

Performance was better on the Monday, with c2c, for example, operating the full service, with its normal high level of punctuality. Through services across London on the Elizabeth Line started as scheduled on Sunday 6th November, and to their enormous credit, MTR operated the full, new timetable the following day. Other companies, for example Great Western and LNER, ran the strike timetable again but added additional trains where they were able to. However, most operators started late and finished early, to the surprise and anger of their customers.

Services in general were back to normal on 9th November, but not for the hapless Avanti, which still operated the “strike” timetable that day, five days after the strike had been suspended. 

While acknowledging the problems faced by the operators, this was generally a shameful performance.

Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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