New EU border checks imposed by the Entry/Exit system will lead to significant delays in passenger processing and there should be a backup plan in case of permanently longer queues, Eurostar has told the UK Parliament.
There could also be lighter border rules for Britons, it said.
The Entry/Exit system (EES) includes new biometric border checks - and the registration of a photo and fingerprints of every non-EU national travelling to the EU on first entry after the scheme begins - and is scheduled to launch in October after significant delays.
However, reports suggest that the system is still far from ready, with UK MPs recently hearing that reasonable ‘worst-case’ delays of up to 14 hours should be expected at the port of Dover.
Eurostar voiced its own concerns about the new system’s “significant risks” in a written submission to the UK Parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee in January.
In particular, it is concerned that the EES “was and is still designed for airports rather than for city-centre and space-constrained terminals,” such as the Grade I-listed St Pancras station, from which its trains depart to the EU.
St Pancras's limited space for the new biometric systems represents “a financial, regulatory, and logistical constraint” by itself, says Eurostar.
It estimates that the EES will add “2 to 3 minutes” to the processing time required for each passenger, up from 45 seconds required at present, resulting in queues of up to one hour at peak times if the station is not upgraded significantly.
The cumulative effect of this added delay could cause massive disruption to Eurostar’s daily services of 14 trains, which can carry up to 900 passengers.
Eurostar’s concerns about the new system are also influenced by its experiences in 2023 when it had to cap numbers for several months due to delays in processing passengers under the current system.
The EES could result in similar restrictions and “unacceptable passenger delays” unless it massively increases its capacity to process biometric data by “around 49 additional kiosks located before the current international zone”.
Eurostar argues that the enhanced security features of the EES do “not seem to be justified by the actual level of threat facing the Schengen Area,” since “British nationals do not represent a serious threat of illegal migration into the EU.”
Nonetheless, in its submission to Parliament, the company says it is willing to respect the “the desire of both UK and Schengen governments to make independent sovereign decisions and develop their own systems.”
However, Eurostar says it has only been provided with only half the number of biometric kiosks required to avoid a backlog of passengers, with only 24 made available by the French authorities. The kiosks at St Pancras are the remit of the French authorities, which manage Eurostar border checks prior to boarding rather than when disembarking in France.
In order to avoid severe disruption on the rollout of the EES in October, Eurostar has made five requests of Parliament:
- The simultaneous rollout of an EES mobile app
- Flexible transition measures, including the possibility of not using the system for all passengers at peak times
- Letting some customers use the old gates for ‘business as usual’ travel
- An “emergency brake system at the highest political level” in case the rollout of the new system causes permanently longer queues and lower traffic. This would mean the EU and UK working together for an alternative solution, such new “bespoke arrangements, for instance exempting UK nationals from the collection and verification of biometric records”
- Financial support to help with the rollout: “EU Member State authorities are providing some support to the investments taking place in their jurisdictions. There does not seem to be the same level of commitment on the UK’s side”