Eurostar: New EU border checks won't cause passenger 's***-show' at St Pancras, bosses pledge

Eurostar passengers at St Pancras station in London will not face chaos when new EU border checks are introduced in October, train bosses have insisted.

The EES (entry and exit system) is due to launch on October 6, from which point non-EU passengers – such as British nationals – will have to undergo facial recognition and fingerprint checks prior to crossing the border.

The new rules will be most visible at St Pancras and at UK ferry ports such as Calais, and at Le Shuttle terminal in Folkestone, because in each case the French border is on UK soil.

Reports this week suggested that passengers would have to turn up at least two hours in advance, meaning an end to “turn up and go” travel and lengthy queues, potentially causing chaos throughout the station.

But Simon Lejeune, chief stations and security officer at Eurostar, told a media briefing on Tuesday: “We are confident it won’t be a shit-show, because we have got the right set-up.

“We are not going to ask our customers to arrive earlier. We are confident, and our modelling supports this, that, end to end, we are still going to be operating within the current check-in times – and we are looking at reducing them.”

This will mean passengers will normally be required to arrive at the Eurostar area in St Pancras station between 45 to 60 minutes prior to their train’s departure time, and 90 minutes in advance during peak times, such as school holidays.

Poetry in motion: the Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras (Ross Lydall)
Poetry in motion: the Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras (Ross Lydall)

What is the EES system and how does it work?

EES is the long-delayed IT system that collects biometric details of travellers from “third countries”, such as the UK post-Brexit, that are not part of the EU or the wider border-free Schengen trade area. The system is being introduced to improve security and reduce illegal migration.

It brings to an end the “wet stamping” of passports by border officials.

EES can operate as an automated system – with passengers passing through e-gates after logging their biometric details and answering four questions about their journey, such as where they are staying, at an electronic booth. However manual border gates will also be available for passengers requiring assistance, including those with children under 12, who are not permitted to use e-gates.

How much is Eurostar spending at St Pancras to prepare for EES?

About 10 million euros is being spent improving the check-in systems at St Pancras, mostly by Eurostar. HS1, which owns the station, is also contributing.

A total of 49 check-in kiosks will be opened, up from 24 at present, and the number of e-gates will increase from eight to 11.

In addition, the manual booths staffed by French border force officials will double from nine to 18. Eurostar says the changes will create a “one-stop shop” for passengers to cross between the UK and EU.

Where will the check-in booths be located?

They can be found in three locations. The main check-in area will be in the corner unit currently occupied by Benugo, opposite the station’s main Network Rail ticket office and escalators leading to the Thameslink platforms.

There will be a second booth, primarily for passengers with mobility issues and premier class passengers, within the main Eurostar area in the centre of the station. A third overflow area, on the station’s first floor, near Searcy’s restaurant, will open at peak times.

The two main check-in booths are separate from the main Eurostar area because of a lack of space in St Pancras station, which reopened in 2007, but are at least on the ground floor. Staff will be present to help passengers struggling with the new technology.

Eurostar passengers will be sent information on where to check in prior to their arrival at St Pancras.

Are there also changes at Gare du Nord in Paris and in Brussels?

Yes. At Gare du Nord, 18 new kiosks are being opened, and the number of e-gates will increase from five to 11.

In Brussels there will be 10 e-gates and eight manual gates, up from four.

Will you have to undergo biometric checks prior to each journey?

Yes. Though your details will be held on file for three years, passengers will be required to have their face scanned and provide their fingerprints each time they travel.

Could this take longer than at present?

Potentially – especially until passengers get used to the new system. Eurostar says its modelling predicts no difference in total check-in time.

It is promising “zero seconds lost on departure” and that the EES procedures being “seamlessly” integrated into existing check-in times.

But passengers will have to pass through a six-stage process – logging in at the check-in kiosk, walking to the main Eurostar area, going through security, exiting the UK border, going through the French border and boarding their train – all within the confines of the station.

Eurostar says that when a substantial number of passengers have been delayed under the current arrangements it tries to delay the train. This could happen again.

Last summer, it took passengers up to two hours to progress through the station at peak times – and that was under the current system.

How long will it take to “cross the border” at the French border control?

Eurostar says it will be quicker – about 30 seconds compared with about 50 seconds at present. It will create a “staggered border” within the station, with more checkpoints separated by glass walls.

Passengers will first have to “leave” the UK – passing through the UK border at one of six counters. A key issue will be how well the French government staffs its border controls. At Folkestone, there are about a dozen drive-through gates, but these are not always all in use.

What happens if the system fails?

That will be for the French border officials to sort out, but it is likely that reduced checking will be allowed temporarily. Precautionary measures such as “EES lite” have been discussed.

What about children?

Children under 12 are not able to use e-gates. They will still have to check-in at the kiosk but will not have to provide fingerprints. They will then have to use the manual gates at the border – requiring their parents or accompanying adults to do likewise.

What about restrictions on taking liquids on the train?

Eurostar does not have the 100ml limit restricting what passengers can take on board a plane as hand baggage. This removes one issue at the security check.

Will passengers flying to the EU also undergo EES checks?

Yes – but this will be done at the arrival airport, not on “UK soil”.

How much does it cost to get EES approved?

Nothing – the system is free.

Isn’t there an app for this?

Yes – one is being trialled in Sweden. But it is not expected to be rolled out more widely until 2025.