Symbol of a connected Europe: Eurostar's drive for reinvention amid Brexit, competition and strikes

Symbol of a connected Europe: Eurostar's drive for reinvention amid Brexit, competition and strikes

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Eurostar carrying passengers from London to Paris.

The first fare-paying passengers used the service to travel through the Channel Tunnel in November 1994.

As UK newspaper the Guardian reported at the time, “there was a cheer as the £24 million [€28 million] locomotive glided out of Waterloo, cheers as it dived into the tunnel at Folkestone and more cheers as it arrived a record 18 minutes later at Calais.”

Despite long delays during Channel Tunnel construction and a series of glitches during trial runs, Eurostar was hailed as history-making.

For years, it has been a cornerstone of European travel and Britain’s most convenient and comfortable gateway to the continent.

But recently, the company has been battling a series of challenges as Brexit, Covid, strikes and competitors threaten to derail operations.

So what is the future of Eurostar and has the visionary rail company reached the end of the track?

Eurostar struggles to adapt to post-Brexit red tape

Brexit has been an agent of doom for Eurostar in myriad ways.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, there is now a requirement to stamp British passports at borders. At London’s St Pancras Station, where the Eurostar departs, this has become a time-consuming operation.

Initially, these rules exacerbated by a lack of staff meant that passengers could not be boarded in time.

As such, although the first train of the day between London and Paris has the capacity to carry 900 passengers, Eurostar had to cap ticket sales at 550, meaning 350 seats were going unsold.

To combat this, Eurostar rolled out a ‘SmartCheck’ system last summer which uses facial biometric data to replace the manual UK exit checks - although for now it is just available to Eurostar’s Business Premier and Carte Blanche passengers.

Before travelling, passengers who opt into the service must scan their passport and face alongside their tickets on the SmartCheck app - the biometric solution provider behind the system.

On reaching the station, they will then be able to use the dedicated SmartCheck corridor with its walk-past facial biometric checkpoint.

This has allowed them to stop capping passenger numbers, helped by increased police resources. Fifty extra French border control agents have been deployed in Paris Gare du Nord and London St Pancras stations, according to Eurostar.

Brexit checks for Eurostar to affect Amsterdam-London route

A knock-on effect of border checks is also being felt on the popular Amsterdam route, which is set to be affected for six months this year.

The Dutch capital’s Centraal station is undergoing major refurbishment meaning there will be insufficient space for border security equipment and waiting areas for passengers headed to London.

As a result, Eurostar will reduce Amsterdam-London services from four down to three a day from June until early 2025.

Passengers returning to London will have to change at Brussels where security and passport checks will take place. This change will add 48 minutes to an hour and 48 minutes to the journey as UK-bound services cross the border.

On the other hand, some services that were previously suspended have been reinstated, such as the Eurostar Snow service from London to the Alps which welcomed over 4,000 passengers this winter.

Post-Brexit biometric border checks could force Eurostar to limit services

The latest post-Brexit hiccup for Eurostar is the EU’s new Entry-Exit System (EES) which is due to come into force in October.

This will see biometric checks for non-EU citizens before entering the international zone at London St Pancras station.

It will likely lead to yet more long queues, HS1, the owner of the station and operator of the high-speed line between London and the Channel tunnel, has warned.

Post-Brexit rules will see biometric checks for non-EU citizens before entering the international zone at London St Pancras station.
Post-Brexit rules will see biometric checks for non-EU citizens before entering the international zone at London St Pancras station. - Frederic Köberl

This could result in a further reduction in services and passenger numbers, the company added.

Too few kiosks have been proposed by the French government meaning Eurostar will likely struggle to process the current volume of passengers.

"We have been working proactively on projections to accurately assess our needs across all stations. As a result, we plan to install around 65 pre-check-in kiosks in our terminals at St Pancras in London and Gare du Nord in Paris," a Eurostar spokesperson told Euronews.

"We are also significantly reinforcing border control capacity with additional manual booths and electronic gates at both stations. Eurostar has invested around €10 million in deploying solutions to meet these new regulations.”

Eurostar faces Channel Tunnel rivals who could cut costs for travellers

Eurostar is also contending with rivalry on its cross-Channel train route.

In late 2023, new rail operator Evolyn announced plans to purchase a fleet of 12 trains to serve the London to Paris line.

The Spanish-owned firm with mysterious investors aims to launch in 2025. It would be the first time that Eurostar has faced cross-Channel competition in its 30-year history.

In addition, the Virgin Group, founded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, could also challenge Eurostar’s monopoly.

Although the project is still in its early stages, it reportedly aims to serve routes from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

From 2028, the newly established rail operator Heuro says it will add another alternative to Eurostar between Amsterdam, Paris and London.

“We just want lower prices and [to get] more people off planes and on trains,” founder of the Dutch company Roemer van den Biggelaar told RailTech.

For Amsterdam to Paris, Heuro is planning 16 services per day, while Amsterdam to London will see 15 a day.

Christmas ‘ruined’ after Eurostar hit by strikes

Eurostar is also struggling with its reputation after a last minute strike in late December 2023 by French Eurotunnel staff ruined Christmas travel plans for thousands of Brits.

The surprise walkout was staged over bonus pay and working conditions and saw some trains rerouted back to Paris and thousands of passengers left stranded.

During the incident, one frustrated passenger tweeted, “Families devastated here at London St. Pancras International. I'm not using Eurostar ever again.”

Amongst all these setbacks, Eurostar still announced that it transported 18.6 million passengers in 2023, up 22 per cent on 2022 and putting numbers back in line with pre-Covid levels.

The company says it remains “absolutely committed to growing high-speed rail in Europe” and hopes to lure passengers with sustainable travel options and a new rewards programme.

Let’s hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel for this 30-year-old institution.