Can rail really compete with air for business travellers visiting Europe? Eurostar’s new route from London St Pancras International opens on November 14, meaning that Britain joins the European high-speed network at last, but prising business travellers away from airlines may not be as simple as it looks.
The argument is already won as far as Eurostar itself is concerned, as it already has about two-thirds of the market between London and Paris/Brussels, with airlines having the rest. The operator has joined a new alliance called Railteam which should make it easier to connect at Brussels, Lille or Paris with Europe’s growing high-speed network, but the case for switching to rail beyond these points is much more difficult to prove.
It all depends where you start and end a particular journey, but for city centre to city centre travel, high-speed rail can usually beat flying on journeys of up to three hours. If you bear in mind increased productivity and the chance to relax and dine at your seat, then rail journeys of up to four hours or longer start to look attractive.
France has the best high-speed network in Europe, having started operating purpose-built TGV lines in 1981. From Lille you can change from Eurostar onto TGV services heading south and west, but few major business destinations are served and it will always be quicker to fly to cities such as Lyon or Bordeaux.
The same destinations can be reached by TGV direct from Paris CDG airport, which is well served from UK regional airports as well as from London. In June, a new TGV line opened from Paris to Strasbourg with dramatically reduced journey times, but UK travellers must change stations in Paris from the Eurostar arrival point of Paris Nord to Paris Gare de l’Est.
Brussels could become a more important interchange point for UK business travellers, now that it can be reached in only 1h 51m from London. The high-speed line from here to Amsterdam opens in December 2008, when a journey time from London of about four hours will be possible (and about 40 minutes less to Rotterdam). Germany too will be brought closer from early 2009, when another missing link in the high-speed network will fall into place. London-Cologne will be possible in about four hours and London-Frankfurt in about five hours, but airlines are unlikely to face a major loss of UK passengers over this distance.
Booking will become easier from 2009 when a single reservations system is introduced by Railteam, an alliance covering Eurostar and the French, German, Belgian, Dutch, Swiss and Austrian rail systems. Multilingual information is being introduced on trains and at stations, and at information points at the main hubs. It also plans to operate an airline-style alliance including reciprocal access to business lounges, and frequent traveller points.
It is already fairly simple to book services connecting with Eurostar, through its website, specialist agencies or through travel management companies. TMCs can also book rail journeys not connecting with Eurostar through their Global Distribution Systems (GDS), also accessible to the end user through self-booking systems. The process is slow and cumbersome at present, but the three major GDS – Galileo, Sabre and Amadeus – are working on new rail systems which will make booking much easier. Sabre’s new rail system is due to go live in December.
TMCs hope improvements to Eurostar will raise awareness of Europe’s high-speed network. Nigel Turner, Carlson Wagonlit director for the public sector, says: “Interest in high-speed rail beyond Eurostar is relatively small at present, and we book using Deutsche Bahn’s online system. What we really need is an integrated rail system on GDS comparing schedules and fares for rail and air side by side. People still prefer the air option except for Paris and Brussels. But if you are doing a multi-leg itinerary within Europe, rail can make sense.”
Although business journeys beyond Eurostar may remain limited, rail certainly makes sense for getting around once you have arrived in a country. France and Germany have the best high-speed networks but Italy and Spain are also expanding theirs.
Germany’s ICE high-speed network links Berlin, Hanover, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich, with further journey-time savings on the way when a new high-speed line opens from Nuremberg to Munich. Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Cologne/Bonn airports are linked to the rail network, with Frankfurt airport having a particularly useful fast and intensive service to Cologne. This operates under a Lufthansa flight number and completes the journey in 57 minutes.
Deutsche Bahn, the German rail operator, has a bookable UK website and call centre, and tickets can be collected at the station, printed by the passenger or sent as an
SMS message. First-class travellers get access to DB Lounges at main stations, and companies spending at least €3,000 a year can register for the BahnCorporate scheme and get discounts of 3-8 per cent.
With the exception of Deutsche Bahn, UK-based business travellers wishing to book high-speed rail on the continent are best advised to use a specialist agency. International Rail, part of global rail-travel provider Wandrian, has a very useful city-to-city search on its website, and promises next-working-day ticket delivery to UK addresses. Booking fees are not charged online, whereas call centre transactions incur booking fees ranging from £3-£21. Rail Europe also offers a pan-European booking service, and is the UK ticketing agency for French rail operator SNCF. It has a central London office at 178 Piccadilly (part of the French tourist office).
For now, however, Eurostar is the limit of many business travellers’ rail ambitions when visiting Europe. From November 14, journey times will be cut by 20 minutes, with the shortest reduced to 2h 15m to Paris, 1h 51m to Brussels and 1h 20m to Lille. Nearly half the trains will stop at the new Ebbsfleet International station just off the M25 near Dartford in Kent, but services from the existing Eurostar station at Ashford are being reduced, and those from Waterloo will cease completely.
For the first time, combined tickets will be available to Paris and Brussels from about 60 stations in the Midlands and North, on rail services into St Pancras, King’s Cross (part of the same complex) and Euston (a five-minute tube or taxi ride away). Eurostar expects to increase custom from 7.85 million passengers in 2006 to 10 million by 2010 – the 20-minute journey-time saving may not in itself be critical, but the operator is benefiting from an image boost at a time when business travellers are looking for a greener and more relaxed alternative to air.
Airlines’ share of the London-Paris and London-Brussels routes looks set to drop further. It’s no longer possible to fly from Gatwick to Paris and frequency from Heathrow has already been cut, with Bmi pulling out of Heathrow-Paris altogether. Airlines are bound to cut frequency further in March 2008 to free up slots for increased services under the Open Skies agreement with the US, and by then Eurostar will have turned up the heat.
For city centre to city centre travel, airlines can’t hope to compete with Eurostar even if airport security is eased. Minimum check-in time for Eurostar is 10 minutes for Business Premier passengers, 20 minutes for registered Frequent Travellers in any class, and 30 minutes for Standard and Leisure Select. Wifi access is provided in all its business lounges but not yet on trains, although this may be introduced in 2008-09. For passengers joining at Ebbsfleet there will be 6,000 parking spaces, but the downside to this is that the M25 around Junction 2 is often heavily congested.
Eurostar looks to have the London-Paris/Brussels market sewn up, but what are the prospects for business travellers north of London switching to rail? Much depends on your proximity to a station or airport, but the advantages of going by rail are certainly there at least as far north as the Midlands. Fares combining first-class travel with Eurostar’s Business Premier class were not available at the time of writing, but starting prices in standard class are £79 return from Birmingham and £84 from Manchester, to Paris or Brussels.
The other major factor tipping the balance in favour of rail is the environment, with many large companies now making it mandatory to choose the greenest form of transport, and many smaller businesses and individuals waking up to the issues. Independent research has shown that flying generates ten times more CO2 than travelling by Eurostar, and the operator’s Tread Lightly initiative aims to cut emissions by 25 per cent per passenger journey by 2012. From November 14, Eurostar is offsetting emissions it can’t eliminate at no cost to passengers, claiming to be the first rail operator in the world to make all journeys carbon neutral.
There’s no doubt that we are entering a new era for rail travel, but the chances of Britain building more high-speed lines look remote. The 68-mile stretch from London to the Channel Tunnel will be all we can offer for the foreseeable future. Britain’s railways have led the world by squeezing higher speeds out of the existing infrastructure, with diesel trains in operation at 125mph since 1977. This top speed can’t be increased without new lines or major improvements to signalling, and Virgin’s Pendolino trains are restricted to 125mph although they were designed for 140mph operation.
The Department for Transport issued a white paper last summer called Delivering a Sustainable Railway, which includes the case for building new high-speed lines or a network using magnetic levitation, as proposed by UK Ultraspeed. It rules out magnetic levitation and warns about the infrastructure costs of new lines, and will not look again at the issue until 2012.
Why the UK cannot do what France has done is a question for the politicians, and could enter the environmental debate at the next election. For now, we must get used to the idea that it’s quicker to travel by rail from London to Brussels than from London to Manchester.
UK/Brussels by train
Birmingham 4h 25m 4h 45m
Manchester 5h 10m 5h 30m
York 4h 50m 5h 10m
Leicester 4h 03m 4h 20m
Cambridge 3h 41m 4h 02m
Newcastle 5h 50m 6h 00m
Times provided by Eurostar, assuming a 30-minute check-in time and including the time needed to change trains.
London-Europe by train
Strasbourg 5h 30m
Bruges 2h 50m
Ghent 2h 35m
Antwerp 2h 30m
Lyon 5h 00m
Marseille 6h 30m
Bordeaux 6h 15m
Basel 6h 35m
Frankfurt 5h 15m
Cologne 4h 05m (from winter 08/09)
Amsterdam 4h 05m (from late 2008)
Includes connection time
Marseille £330 £460
Cologne £370 £525
Amsterdam £378 £540
Milan £435 £612
Unrestricted return fares quoted by Rail Europe. Much lower fares are available if you can commit to dates.
Deutsche Bahn Tel +44 (0)8718 808 066; bahn.co.uk
International Rail +44 (0)870 084 1410; internationalrail.com
Rail Europe +44 (0)8705 848 848; raileurope.co.uk
Carlson Wagonlit cwt.co.uk