Eurostar has reduced its London St Pancras terminal capacity by one third because of the longer waiting times caused by post-Brexit checks, and it is by doing this that it has avoided the long queues seen at terminals like Dover, the operator has said.
Since the UK left the EU, border control officers have been required to check that British travellers entering the bloc are not going to exceed their 90-day limit, that their passports will have three months’ validity left when they leave the bloc and are under 10 years old, and to stamp the document.
They are also theoretically obliged to ask whether the traveller has travel insurance, a return ticket and sufficient funds for their trip, although this is rarely the case in practice.
This process takes about 15-30 seconds longer than the quick look at the passport which was customary before Brexit when British citizens were entitled to free movement in the EU.
At the Eurostar terminal, this means that even with all the passport booths staffed, border officers can only process 1,500 passengers per hour at most, compared to 2,200 when the UK was in the EU.
This is according to the operator’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, who said that the only way in which Eurostar had succeeded in avoiding the long queues seen at terminals such as the Port of Dover over the summer was by reducing the number of train seats on offer.
“We are installing an extra French control booth in London (where space is extremely constricted). However, as things stand, peak capacity through the stations is around 30% lower than pre-Brexit,” he said.
Mr Damas was writing to Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Transport Select Committee, who had asked him to explain why Eurostar had cut services from Kent stations and stopped its Disneyland Paris route from 2023. This service began running in 1996.
Mr Damas said: “It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports.
“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid-to-long term.
“But the immediate consequence is that we are currently not able to respond to the high demand on our core routes linking capital cities.
He also confirmed that Eurostar would not begin stopping at Ashford and Ebbsfleet again until at least 2025, in order to concentrate “vital border police” resources at London St Pancras.
EU Entry/Exit System ‘hanging over’ firm
Mr Damas also said that the launch of the EU’s new Entry/Exit System (EES) next year will also pose issues for Eurostar.
This system will require people entering the EU from non-EU countries to have their passport and biometric data, including fingerprint scans, collected so that they can be registered on a database. This will enable authorities to automatically determine how many days the traveller may remain in the EU.
The implementation of EES, which will require significant infrastructural adjustments, “hangs over us”, Mr Damas stated.
Concern over finances
Eurostar has incurred significant costs recently because of the price of UK track maintenance and replacements, which is three times higher than on the French side.
This comes after the operator saw its revenues cut by 95% during the Covid crisis, having been refused state loans and therefore being obliged to pay high rates of interest on the £500million of debt it accumulated.
Mr Damas said that in recent months, “We have been hampered by the shortage on maintenance engineers in our main Temple Mills depot in Stratford.
“As a consequence, some of our train sets are not ready in time and this occasions delays on departure with day-long knock-on effects.
“Eurostar did not make any operational staff redundant during the pandemic but we were struggling to replace those who left and this has resulted in a numbers and skills gap.
“To address this, we have been recruiting more than 40 maintenance engineers since the spring. This factor, which could have forced us to limit our timetable in normal circumstances, has not because border constraints are higher.
“I am confident that we will overcome it in the coming months as we do control how to address it.
“The combination of the two main short-term factors above means that, despite the return to travel, Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth.
“We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.”
Mr Damas said that as a result of this situation fares will remain elevated for some time to come.
There is “considerable uncertainty about the ability of customers to pay” in the context of the UK cost of living crisis. At the same time, Eurostar is facing “nearly £100m in increased inflationary pressures”.
“I have the duty, as CEO, to make the right decision and secure my company’s future. I am therefore cautious not to overcommit,” he added.