The launch of direct Eurostar services from London to the Netherlands is drawing closer, providing a useful alternative for travellers, says Alex McWhirter.

Back in 1994, Eurostar was established as a high-speed train operator between London, Belgium and France via the Channel Tunnel. That’s the way it has stayed ever since – but now the rail firm, which is majority owned by France’s SNCF, is poised to exit its comfort zone and launch regular services to the Netherlands.

It is true that you can already book tickets from London to Holland on, but these are not direct services. A change at Brussels Midi is needed and there is always the risk of missing connections, as some readers will testify.

The change of tack has come with the arrival of new 900-seat Siemens e320 trainsets, which have the technical capability to operate into Holland. Eurostar’s original 750-seat Alstom e300 trains cannot do this unless they undergo modification, which was deemed to be uneconomical given their age.

Mind you, cynics would argue that Eurostar would have stayed in its comfort zone had it not been for Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB). In 2010, there was much excitement when DB announced it wanted to operate ICE through-trains (Germany’s high-speed version of France’s TGV) into London St Pancras from Holland, Belgium and Germany. These plans never came to fruition – after years of battling with the Channel Tunnel authorities to have its ICEs certified, DB dropped its plans. But DB’s challenge did prompt incumbent Eurostar to up its game. Believing it would soon face competition, it ordered a fleet of swish Siemens trainsets and set expansion plans in motion.

Amsterdam and Rotterdam will be the first two Dutch cities to be served by Eurostar. Plans to call at Schiphol airport have been postponed. Nicholas Petrovic, chief executive of Eurostar, said: “With demand for high-speed rail over plane on the increase, we are now gearing up to expand our reach to Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The launch of our new direct service on this high-volume route [three million travellers fly between London and Amsterdam every year] represents a major growth opportunity for our business.”

Marjon Kaper, managing director of NS International, Dutch railway’s international marketing division, adds: “The preparations for the direct connection between Amsterdam and London with Eurostar are progressing well. All partners are working hard on this.”

In truth, Eurostar had planned to launch its Amsterdam route by now, but it has been delayed more than once and the latest plan sees it postponed yet again. Trains were expected to operate through to Amsterdam at the end of this year, but the latest news is that regular services will not happen until Easter 2018 at the earliest.

A spokesperson says: “Our plan is to have an e320 running between London, Amsterdam and Rotterdam by the end of the year for an inaugural service. Then we will get ourselves used to operating on the new route and gearing up so that we are ready for the peak city-break Easter period.”

Mystery surrounds the arrangements that Eurostar will be making for immigration and security procedures to take place. When the operator first started in 1994, customs and immigration checks were carried out on board, with passengers remaining in their seats while the officials came to them. The Alstom trains were even equipped with interview rooms and cells where suspect passengers could be detained. But now passengers must be checked before the train enters the Tunnel.

Readers who have used Amsterdam Centraal station will verify that it can get very busy. There appears to be very little space to construct a separate terminal for UK-bound passengers’ immigration and security checks. Eurostar’s official line on the matter is: “We are working closely with the relevant authorities to advance these discussions and find the best solution to provide a fast and efficient service for our customers.”

Still, a photo recently uploaded to Twitter appeared to show a Eurostar terminal now under construction in a section of Amsterdam Centraal. The unofficial tweet was from an NS International staff member with the caption: “Rear track [platform] 15B on Amsterdam Centraal is old building demolished to make way for Eurostar terminal.”

Perhaps this is the cause of Eurostar’s Amsterdam-London route launch delay. Timings for the new service have yet to be confirmed but there will be two trains daily (weekend services may be reduced), the first departing London at about 0800 to arrive in Amsterdam around 1300, some four hours later (allowing for the time change). The second service would depart London at about 1700, arriving at around 2200.

Departures out of Amsterdam would be roughly the same, or earlier, but, owing to the time difference, it is likely that the attraction will be greater for the Dutch market, given that it will take an hour less to London.

Will the new service attract business people? Much will depend on where you live or work at either end of the route. Clearly, it would be suitable if you can easily access St Pancras but little use if you live, say, in Hampshire. It is worth noting that the London-Rotterdam journey time will be about 40 minutes less than Amsterdam.

Eurostar will score for those business people staying overnight or who may want to fly one-way and return by train, or vice-versa. For example, someone working in London but residing in the New Forest may wish to take the Eurostar after work but then return by air to Southampton the next day. However people decide to use it, Eurostar will be offering a welcome alternative for travellers between London and Holland.

Deutsche Bahn’s London plans

Back in 2010, when Deutsche Bahn displayed its ICE train at St Pancras, I wonder how many of the attendees realised that the trainset had been towed to London from Calais? That’s because every European nation has its own technical standards for rail. If not about power, it could concern signalling. In the case of the UK, it’s worse still, because our loading gauge does not conform to the European standard.

The Tunnel has its own standards. Originally, only Eurostar’s Alstom trainsets were certified for the Tunnel. DB’s ICEs, because of their different power distribution, had to gain certification and this process took years.

Deutsche Bahn had hoped to be running to London by the time of the 2012 Olympics, but its ICEs were not approved by the Tunnel authorities until 2013, with DB itself then postponing its London plans until 2016.

In 2014, Andreas Busemann, who was then head of production at DB’s long-distance division, told Reuters: “We have not entirely given up on our goal of going to London. But for now we are concentrating on going to Brussels and Paris. None of us anticipated we would have such major problems with certification [for the ICEs]. In the meantime the business environment has changed.” DB would also face the question of where to conduct the immigration and security checks for passengers originating in Germany and Holland.

The situation has remained that way, although, periodically, hopes have been raised by the UK media. The latest news from DB is that plans remain on hold. Quoted on French site, Birgit Bhole, CEO of DB’s long-distance network, said: “London is not in our schedule for five years because we have other priorities.” Rather than operate to the UK, DB prefers to co-operate better with France’s SNCF for high-speed Franco-German cross-border services.