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Could there be a better way to get to Europe than the Eurostar? It’s an easy journey from St Pancras to the heart of Paris (two hours twenty minutes) or Brussels (just over two hours). From there the whole of our endlessly fascinating continent, a cornucopia of landscapes, architecture, languages, climates, cultures, is accessible by train.
Eurostar is a civilised way to travel. You don’t have to endure an airport, remove your shoes, be strapped like an infant into your seat. As the Eurostar glides quietly out of St Pancras you can enjoy the knowledge that your journey will produce one tenth of the CO2 emissions of flying to Paris, and indeed less than a car journey from London to Heathrow. Between 1996 and 2019, a time when passenger numbers at UK airports were doubling, flights from London to Paris dropped from 100 a day to 46. The Eurostar really does cut down on flying.
But our green gateway to Europe is at risk. In common with other transport operators the Eurostar’s finances have been hugely damaged by the pandemic, with passenger numbers falling by 95%. This is on top of a decrease in business that was already inevitable because of post-Brexit visas, permits and general red tape. If travel restrictions are not lifted and there is no state support, the Eurostar will run out of cash over the summer.
The UK government quite rightly is subsidising domestic railways. Less justifiably, given our urgent need to get to zero carbon emissions to avoid climate catastrophe, it is also subsidising air operators. In exchange for a coronavirus bailout the French government seized the opportunity to pressure Air France to reduce domestic flights by 40%. By contrast, on this small island with its extensive rail network, there is talk of cutting air passenger duty for internal flights. Yet the UK government has made it clear there will be no support for the Eurostar unless the French government takes the lead.
The reason given is that it is 55% owned by France, so it is France’s responsibility. This ignores the reality that the majority of the 2,000 jobs connected with Eurostar are in the UK and that, for clear reasons of geography, the link is of more significance to the UK than to France. We enjoy easy access to a whole continent. France gets a link to one increasingly insular and truculent nation. As Huw Merriman MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee has said, ‘We simply cannot afford the lose the Eurostar’.
Eurostar’s contribution to the UK economy reached around £800 million in 2019, by which time it was providing nearly 80% of the rail/air journeys between London and Paris/Brussels. A direct service to Amsterdam had been established, in addition to the seasonal links to Marseille and to the Alps. The future was promising. Then came the earthquake of 2020.
In response to the pandemic, Eurostar has made strenuous efforts to stay in business, negotiating a £400 million loan and cutting costs. The shareholders are providing £210m in support. The company needs guaranteed loans, which are already available to airlines and domestic train companies, and wants track access charges – high by European standards – to be re-assessed, all reasonable requests in the context of support given to the transport sector in general.
In Europe and the US there is growing recognition that we must move away from polluting airlines to greener railways. President Biden has promised a second great railroad revolution and the EU has designated 2021 the year of rail. Thanks to cooperation between Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland more overnight rail links including Paris-Vienna, Amsterdam-Zurich and Brussels-Malmö are to be added to sleeper routes that already exist, and some that had disappeared will be reinstated. Sleeper trains save time by providing a comfortable journey city centre to city centre between dinner and breakfast without wasting a day getting to and from airports. As travel experiences go, it’s hard to beat dinner in the restaurant car watching the sun set over rural France, a comfortable bed in a private compartment, then emerging into the bustle of a great European city to address the serious business of deciding which cafe might be most suitable for breakfast.
If the Eurostar fails, it will be much less simple for us to take advantage of these wonderful services to access further-flung parts of Europe. Our easy connection to our nearest neighbours will be gone and, with more people inevitably opting to fly, the effects on the climate will be disastrous.
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