Features

Action stations

26 Jan 2011 by Alex McWhirter

As the major European rail operators take steps to expand their operations out of London, Alex McWhirter reports on what this will mean for UK business travellers

Will international rail travel finally take off in the UK? I ask because enthusiastic writers have often predicted the decline of short-distance air travel in favour of the train. And although it hasn’t happened yet, rail now has a fighting chance of gaining more market share.

It is true that high-speed train company Eurostar (55 per cent owned by France’s SNCF) continues to consolidate its grip on the voluminous routes linking London St Pancras with Paris Nord and Brussels Midi. But that’s where the story ends.

When Eurostar first saw the light of day in 1994, it was thought that rail travel between the UK and the rest of mainland Europe would boom. But matters never turned out that way because of ticketing problems and a lack of vision. Other than a couple of seasonal services, Eurostar has shown no inclination to continue beyond its existing termini into France, Holland or Germany, despite repeated requests from travellers.

International rail travel from the UK can be a costly palaver. Airline passengers can travel deep into mainland Europe using a single ticket, even if they have to change planes.

But when rail passengers wish to do likewise, they must purchase a collection of separate tickets with different train firms (see panel overleaf).

So the news that more ambitious services with the prospect of simpler ticketing will soon be available to and from London is to be welcomed. What appears to have changed Eurostar’s stance is the planned arrival into St Pancras of Germany’s national rail firm, Deutsche Bahn (DB). From 2013, DB has announced its intention to operate three services a day that would link London with Brussels, Amsterdam (via Rotterdam), Cologne and Frankfurt. They would be operated by a new generation of sophisticated multi-voltage trains, made by German firm Siemens and branded ICE3 Class 407. These trains are capable of crossing frontiers and dealing with each country’s electricity supply and signalling systems.

Eurostar responded by ordering a ten-strong fleet of Siemens advanced high-speed trains in October. These are branded Velaro and, if the order goes ahead (it’s currently subject to a legal challenge by rival French manufacturer Alstom, which would prefer Eurostar to purchase its AGV train), the services would also start in a few years’ time.

But whereas DB has finalised the routes for its new services, Eurostar cannot do likewise. This appears to be a surprising omission. Writing in industry magazine Rail, transport expert Christian Wolmar says: “I find it incredible that Eurostar should commit itself to a £700 million investment in new trains without knowing what they are for. If this is the case, one has to wonder about the judgment of the company’s top management.”

At the launch of its proposed new services, Eurostar chief executive Nicolas Petrovic said: “We will look at where the markets are in terms of [airline traffic]. So we could be looking at Holland, West Germany, Marseilles and Geneva. There is no decision yet.”

The difference between Eurostar and DB is that the former will operate a single train whereas DB will spread its risks. In other words, it will operate one 16-carriage train from London but split it on arrival in Brussels. One half would then go to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, while the other would proceed to Frankfurt via Cologne.

DB has indicated that journey times from London would be about four hours to Amsterdam or Cologne, with Frankfurt taking just over five hours. Amsterdam is a popular destination in its own right while Cologne and Frankfurt, besides being large business cities, also act as railway hubs. Passengers will find connection possibilities not just within Germany but onwards to Denmark, Eastern Europe, Austria and Switzerland.

Eurostar’s new trains are expected to call at stations en route, otherwise, its huge 900-seater trains (equal to the capacity of roughly two A380 superjumbos) would not be viable – imagine trying to fill a midday departure operating solely to Frankfurt.

Before the new trains can enter service they must be approved to use the Channel Tunnel by the safety authorities. This is expected to be granted. Approval is needed because the new generation of trains operated by Eurostar and DB have “distributed power”. In other words, their engines are mounted beneath the carriages whereas the existing Eurostar trains have power cars at either end.

Distributed power enables the train to accommodate more passengers because the end coaches can be given over to seating. The trains also gain better traction in demanding conditions and can still operate should several engines fail.

The drawback is more engine noise within the coaches. Having sampled one of DB’s existing ICE3 trains with distributed power, I can vouch for the fact that noise levels are higher than the whisper quietness encountered on an existing Eurostar model. Hopefully, modern sound insulation will improve matters. If not, then expect the new trains to have all the ambience of a commuter train.

There are potential problems ahead, one being capacity. In October, when Business Traveller’s editorial director, Tom Otley, spoke with Paul Chapman, managing director of HS1 (the UK’s high-speed line linking St Pancras with the Channel Tunnel), he was told there would be no problem with capacity at St Pancras, even with DB planning to carry one million passengers in and out of the station in its first year of operation.

“We already know there are no issues about accommodating a second operator into St Pancras and, equally, a third, should a third materialise,” Chapman said. “We have six international platforms here and our full capacity is 20 trains per hour. We can see demand increasing across Europe but we can’t see a point where we will run out of capacity.”
While that seems plausible in ideal conditions, it’s hard to see St Pancras coping during times of disruption – look at the long queues of passengers that built up in the surrounding streets both this winter and last during times of heavy snowfall.

Another potential issue is immigration and security clearance. The UK is not in the Schengen Area so stations served by Eurostar must have separate facilities for immigration, customs and security clearance. Some of the new stations the train operators propose to serve are already congested. At Cologne, Frankfurt and Amsterdam central stations, trains roll in and out of the platforms every few minutes. So can they accommodate lengthier procedures?

One solution would be to carry out immigration checks on the train – that used to be the situation in the early days of Eurostar. But today’s multinational make-up of passengers and the vast numbers travelling may make that impractical. When I questioned Eurostar and DB about these drawbacks, the feeling was that it was up to governments to sort matters out.

The new services will succeed in wooing more passengers to rail, especially those travelling on leisure. But the advantages for business people are debatable. If you are based in London then the train will be a viable option, but London is not the UK. If you live or work in East Anglia and need to visit Holland, why would you trek to St Pancras when Amsterdam is little more than a hop across the North Sea from Norwich or Stansted? Likewise, if based in Manchester and bound for the Ruhr, how can St Pancras appeal when you can fly direct to Cologne or Dusseldorf in 90 minutes?

All the same, the new rail links are to be welcomed. The airlines will certainly find them a boon – it means they can offer stranded passengers an efficient surface alternative at times of disruption.

Ticketing trauma

Not only is the current system of booking international rail journeys a complicated one, but travellers are missing out too. Booking a simple Eurostar trip is straightforward – the problems arise when checking eurostar.com for a booking involving another train company, such as London to Cologne via Brussels.

Eurostar uses SNCF’s booking system, which cannot “talk” with Deutsche Bahn’s system for the Brussels-Cologne sector. That is why eurostar.com shows only Thalys trains (a quasi-SNCF product) when passengers seek to book via Brussels Midi. It cannot show any of the four daily high-speed ICE trains DB runs between the two cities, even though they may offer a faster journey.

Taking the 0620 Eurostar service from St Pancras to Brussels and connecting with a DB train to Cologne will get you there at 1215. This is bookable on DB’s more comprehensive website, bahn.co.uk. On eurostar.com, the first available service via Brussels is 0734 from St Pancras, connecting to Thalys, which provides a 1515 arrival into Cologne after a three-hour connection – not much use to a business person. Eurostar also displays a later departure at 0802 (providing the same 1515 arrival into Cologne) but this involves a long-winded journey via Paris Nord.

When I asked Eurostar to explain, a spokesperson said: “It is because of technical constraints with individual operators’ booking systems.” In such cases, Eurostar suggests you book by phone, but you then lose out on display transparency.

According to the railway press, Railteam (an alliance of Europe’s rail networks) spent €30 million in a bid to harmonise the different booking systems but without success.

Speaking to businesstraveller.com’s sister website, abtn.co.uk, at a recent Amadeus Rail forum, Tony Berry, who is in charge of fares distribution at travel management company Hogg Robinson Group, said: “There needs to be simplified fare structures and ticketing – 20 years ago, 98 per cent of our transactions were air and rail but the latter has grown significantly in recent years and most tickets are premium first class revenue for the rail firms.”

Ticketing is so complicated, says Berry, that most of his firm’s front-line consultants “would be scratching their heads” if asked to book a trans-European rail ticket. That is why the agency chains have either an in-house department or use a specialist such as London’s European Rail (europeanrail.com) for processing them.

Diane Bouzebiba, head of IT provider Amadeus’s rail unit, which hopes to simplify the booking process, believes the rail firms have accepted change is necessary as they evolve beyond domestic sales. She says: “The rail industry has a long tradition in terms of how it does things. It is therefore quite slow-moving because competition has never put the rail companies under pressure. But it’s a different world now. Billions of euros are being invested in tracks and there’s a move towards environmental travel. Change must be embraced for the future of the sector.”

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