Eurostar passengers to avoid UK border checks with new facial recognition system

A “world first” system that allows Eurostar passengers to avoid UK border checks by scanning their face and passport at home has been launched at St Pancras station.

Eurostar hopes the launch of the SmartCheck system – which operates via a smartphone app called - will reduce the stress and potential delays associated with international journeys.

If the trial involving business passengers is successful, it plans to roll out access to the system to all standard class ticket holders, though a date for this to happen has not been set.

Passengers who scan their face and passport prior to arriving at St Pancras can then walk straight through a dedicated lane, bypassing the UK border controls – and through the terminal to the nearby baggage security X-rays and French border controls.

Gwendoline Cazenave, chief executive of Eurostar Group, said: “By introducing SmartCheck, we become the first rail travel operator to adopt biometric face verification.”

The system – which is being introduced as an option for passengers - effectively eliminates the possibility of delays at the UK border exit check, when a Border Force official normally swipes each traveller’s passport and checks its details.

Andrew Bud, founder and chief executive at iProov, which is based in Waterloo, said it had been talking to Eurostar about the system since 2016. The system was trialled between last December and April.

Mr Bud said it was expected that hundreds of people a day would initially use the new check-in system. Up to four people walking side by side can be “scanned” simultaneously.

“One of the biggest advantages is the reduction in stress, and greater convenience,” he said. “It takes just a few seconds to get through.”

Versions of the app in French and German will be added at a later date. However it cannot be used by children under 16 due to GDPR restrictions.

“More work” is required before the system can expand to include Eurostar passengers looking to enter the UK from the continent.

The app operates by storing a passenger’s travel data on their phone, not on a Eurostar database. It can initially be used by business premium and carte blanche ticket holders.

He admitted it was unlikely to have a knock-on impact of reducing the time for standard ticket passengers to get through UK passport control at St Pancras – typically about 15 minutes.

“It’s unlikely to reduce the numbers in the general lane for the time being,” he said. “If and when it’s widened out to standard class passengers, I’m convinced this will work so well.”

Eurostar has had to “cap” the number of passengers on each train at five per cent below capacity – the longest trains carry 900 passengers - to ensure all can board in time. Previously, it was unable to sell 250 seats per train.

This is because of the time it can take to pass through passport control, particularly on the French side of the border – which is also located inside St Pancras station.

The number of staff working on border control plummeted during the pandemic and continues to inhibit travellers.

Ms Cazenave said Eurostar hoped to lift its cap on passenger numbers by the end of the year and had the ambition of growing by 30m passengers by 2030.

“We have to unlock capacity in stations,” she said. “Smart Check is part of our ambition to ‘push the walls’ of St Pancras.

“This is showing to the French, Belgian and Dutch governments there are new innovative solutions to cross-border travel.

“We will see, step by step, when we can deploy this to all other customers at St Pancras.”