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The Channel Tunnel’s passenger train service has a major problem. Now a radical shakeup might be on

Demand for high-speed rail travel is booming in Europe. Travelers are desperate for a fast, sustainable alternative to short-haul air flights and congested highways.

But there’s a problem.

Demand is outstripping supply on many routes. Trains are full and prices are often sky high, forcing many travelers to use less eco-friendly modes of transport.

Europeans want more routes and more trains on existing routes between major cities where expansion is currently being stifled by inadequate capacity, political issues and underinvestment.

Unlike airlines, which can add new routes within months, it takes decades and billions of dollars to build new high-speed railways, especially where they cross international borders.

Right now, one of the biggest bottlenecks is the Channel Tunnel, the undersea rail link between Britain and France that is the domain of Eurostar, the high-speed train service linking London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Eurostar competes with airlines on busy European air routes but cannot currently exploit the huge untapped demand due to station capacity issues in London, Paris and Amsterdam – and a chronic shortage of border control staff in the UK.

While there’s plenty of room on the dedicated high-speed railways it uses in the UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and through the Channel Tunnel, border staff cannot process enough passengers each hour to fill the 900-seat trains.

That means some have been departing with seats unoccupied. Adding more trains would overwhelm its city center stations (Eurostar says it’s halting services between London and Amsterdam for six months from June 2024 while upgrades to the service’s terminal in the Netherlands were being made.)

However, change could be on the way before the end of this decade.

After almost 30 years of monopoly, Eurostar is suddenly facing a raft of new challengers on its core international routes, with competition offering the prospect of more trains, more choice and lower fares.

‘Ten times nicer than by plane’

London could gain additional high-speed trains to Belgium and the Netherlands under ambitious plans unveiled by new startup Heuro on November 14.

Established by a trio of Dutch entrepreneurs, Heuro aims to compete directly with Eurostar on the Amsterdam-Paris/London routes from 2028, offering up to 15 trips per day to London and 16 to Paris.

Inspired by the success of Italian private operator Italo and high-speed rail competition in Spain and France, Heuro’s founders are keen to shift travelers from air to rail on some of Europe’s busiest short-haul air routes.

“We just want lower prices and more people off planes and on trains,” says Heuro founder Roemer van den Biggelaar.

“There are still 55 flights [a day] from Amsterdam to London and back, which I think is a lot,” he adds. “And that’s while there is a very nice tunnel with a high-speed line.

“Personally, I also find travelling by train 10 times nicer than by plane. Towards London there are still capacity problems in terms of passport control, but something like that can be solved.

“The Eurostar is often quite full. If we start running trains there too, we hope the prices will drop.”

Heuro has not yet revealed what its tickets would cost, but it plans to undercut Eurostar and will add more connections to other cities if it is successful. Eurostar has said it does not comment on such announcements and is focused on growing sustainable travel in Europe.

High-speed rail competition in Italy and Spain has helped to increase service frequencies, reduce fares by up to 40% and grow the market by up to 300% on some routes over the last decade, according to figures published by ALLRail, which represents non-state train operators in the European rail market.

ALLRail President Erich Forster welcomed the Heuro announcement, saying: “Competition in Italy has led to more choice and more trains. It is clearly the solution for the northwest European high-speed rail market as well.

“Put simply, start-ups such as Heuro are the future of passenger rail. We look forward to an alternative to the current situation where - with only one operator [Eurostar] – the market is chronically underserved.”

A Virgin rebirth?

Heuro’s announcement came just three days after British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that Richard Branson’s Virgin empire wants to return to the rail sector to compete with Eurostar, four years after its last UK contract.

Although the story was dismissed as speculation by Virgin, the report suggested that a former Virgin Trains boss has been lined up to head the new international rail operation connecting London and Paris.

Branson has previously said he feels he has “unfinished business” in the rail sector and Virgin could become a formidable competitor to Eurostar if the rumors prove to be true.

Also backed by wealthy investors, Spanish startup Evolyn was the first to show its hand in October.

It announced plans to challenge Eurostar on the Paris-London route from 2025, with the full service starting in 2026. However, rail industry experts have expressed serious doubts about whether this target is achievable.

With only one type of train – Eurostar’s Siemens-built e320 - currently in production and authorized to work in the Channel Tunnel, and Siemens’ production lines fully occupied with a massive order for Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, Evolyn is looking to French transport giant Alstom and could use trains similar to the latest generation TGV-M.

Alstom has said it is so far merely in discussions with the new company.

With Alstom’s factory in La Rochelle also committed to building 100 TGV-Ms for French National Railway SNCF over the next 10 years, Evolyn’s chances of getting new trains designed, built and authorised in less than two years look very remote indeed.

To serve London, all three challengers face the same obstacles.

All will need to procure high-speed trains compatible with stringent Channel Tunnel fire regulations, as well as safety and power supply systems in up to five countries.

European rail commentator Jon Worth told CNN Travel: “Order trains from Siemens and maybe you get a new train through the tunnel by 2028, but more likely 2030.

“There is no fundamental reason why you could not build a TGV-M to be compatible with the Channel Tunnel fire regulations, but so far this has not been done – and you would need 12 months to get a redesign approved.”

Spanish train-builder Talgo offers a possible alternative. Its new “Avril” high-speed train, currently undertaking final testing in Spain and France, will be used on international services linking Madrid and Barcelona with French cities and has caught the eye of French open access hopefuls Le Train and Kevin Speed.

Talgo is likely to be in a position to deliver suitable high-speed trains sooner than Alstom, although it would also need to redesign Avril to meet Channel Tunnel rules and have the new variant approved by the tunnel regulator and infrastructure owners in France and the UK.

That’s a process likely to be measured in years rather than months, which means any new train would be delivered towards the end of this decade.

“And as if that is not all complex enough, new operators have the difficulty of finding paths [the timetabled slots allocated to each service], which is extremely complex, into busy stations such as Paris Gare du Nord, and terminal capacity due to onerous post-Brexit border checks,” adds Jon Worth.

“This is especially complex at [London’s] St Pancras, which has little room to expand passport and security facilities. Neither is insurmountable, but not at all easy.”

Arguably the most credible challenge to Eurostar is looming on routes unaffected by the political and operational issues stifling high-speed rail to London.

Italian Railways’ subsidiary QBuzz has applied to the Dutch Competition Authority for permission to operate Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris and Amsterdam-Cologne-Frankfurt (in competition with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn) using the superb Frecciarossa high-speed trains already deployed with great success in Italy, Spain and France.

QBuzz expects to open its new routes from January 2027.

In the last two years, Italy’s Trenitalia has made a huge impact on the Paris-Milan and Paris-Lyon routes, where the Frecciarossa competes directly with TGV. Since December 2021, passenger numbers on the Milan route have shot up by 58% while fares have fallen by an average of 7%.

“This new example and others, such as SNCF and Trenitalia competing with Spanish Railways, show how long-distance competition between incumbents is driving a modal shift to passenger rail,” says Nick Brooks, secretary general of ALLRAIL, a pressure group representing non-state train operators.

Europe aims to double high-speed rail use by 2030 – just six years away – and triple the current levels by 2050. Only a massive – and accelerated - expansion of the high-speed network can achieve these hugely ambitious targets.

Opening up existing high-speed railways to new operators will help to create new capacity and attract more passengers through new routes, lower costs and more journey opportunities, but the challenges involved should not be underestimated.

Alberto Mazzola, executive director of the Community of European Railways (CER) said his organization wants to see a high-speed rail network connecting all major cities, urban nodes and airports.

“With affordable and comfortable trains, rail will become the preferred mode of transport,” he told CNN Travel, stressing the need for all the European Union’s 27 countries to invest in high-speed rail.

“Our research clearly demonstrates the significant socio-economic and sustainability benefits of an EU-wide high-speed rail network,” he said. “At an estimated $800 billion, the long-term economic benefits will be substantially greater than the costs – an estimated $587 billion - and these connections would bring an exceptional increase of rail ridership and market share.”

ALLRAIL’s Brooks adds: “We want to see high-speed trains with 1,000 seats each connecting places around Europe on a frequent basis. This will lead to low fares and high revenue. While other competing long distance transport modes are setting themselves ‘net zero’ emission targets, rail can do it bigger and better.”

This article originally appeared on CNN Travel.

Photo: Lex Van Lieshout/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

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