Safety requirements, technical issues and a lack of competition may be putting the brakes on progress when it comes to European rail travel, says Alex McWhirter.

Back in 2010 there was excitement in the air at St Pancras International. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn had just brought one of its high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) trains to London, and announced it would compete against Eurostar, which held the monopoly on passenger services through the Channel Tunnel.

Deutsche Bahn intended to offer a fresh product, running its own ICEs between London, Benelux and Germany, but it never happened. After years of frustration in dealing with the various authorities, it decided to throw in the towel. But why?

Many people are not aware that the Channel Tunnel has specific safety and technical requirements for trains that wish to transit under their own power. Currently, only Eurostar (which is majority owned by France’s SNCF) has the correct trainsets. No other operators have them, or indeed appear willing to invest in them.

So how did Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed train even make it to St Pancras? Few in the media realised that it was towed from Calais to London using the Tunnel’s own diesel locomotives. The ICE was not permitted to transit the Tunnel under its own power, let alone utilise the signalling systems on this side of the Channel.


International rail within Europe is a complex affair; every country having its own technical and safety standards. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE had mastered the systems in its own country, plus those of Belgium and France, but it had failed in the UK at the final hurdle.

Rail travellers’ hopes for a greater choice were again raised in July 2018 when Getlink – formerly Eurotunnel – commissioned an extensive study, which concluded that a budget rail operator was needed to increase its own (Channel Tunnel) business and, in doing so, meet the demands of today’s travellers.

When Eurostar was launched in November 1994, the product it offered was akin to airline practice. Passengers had to check-in beforehand, there was free catering (for some), and reservations were compulsory, but what worked 24 years ago may no longer be relevant today. Look at how much the short-haul airline product has changed since 1994 (a lot), compared to the Eurostar product (not much).


Getlink hopes that a new product, a sort of Eurostar “light”, would be viable. Aimed at younger travellers, the survey estimates that a budget train service could be carrying two million passengers annually within five years of being launched.

Getlink would benefit because the added trains would provide it with an additional €285 million (£257 million) annually in toll fees.

To avoid conflict with existing train companies the new service would
be using out-of-town stations in both London and Paris. That’s no bad thing. Paris Gare du Nord (the arrival point for Eurostar) is congested and, at peak times, it struggles to cope with passenger flow, as each Eurostar train accommodates up to 900 travellers. However, a major expansion is planned for the station in preparation for the Paris Olympic Games due to take place in 2024.

Any budget service may route to Paris via slower, non high-speed rail lines. Why? Because although the journey would take longer, the train firm would not have to pay the higher costs of using the high-speed line.

In fact, what the Getlink study suggested is that any new operator should adopt what SNCF is already doing at home; in other words, its Ouigo ( TGVs could adopt the low-cost carrier (LCC) business model, while Izy (pronounced “easy”,, the budget spin-off operated by Thalys, takes the slower “classic” lines between Paris and Brussels.

Unfortunately, what the study failed to mention is that, as previously mentioned, no other operator besides Eurostar has the correct trains for the Channel Tunnel. So unless Eurostar itself introduces a budget service, it could be years before another operator enters the market, even if it were prepared to make the investment in the correct trains.

Says Nick Brooks, secretary general of Allrail (an alliance of new rail operators in Europe), “We believe that competition through the Channel Tunnel in the long-distance market would benefit consumers, the rail sector and ultimately Eurostar itself. In mainland Europe there is competition in other transport modes, such as ferries, flights, long-distance [road] coaches, and now on some rail routes. Why shouldn’t passenger rail be able to benefit too?”


So what about Eurostar and its future plans? Its e320 Siemens trainsets (unlike the original Alstom ones) allow Eurostar to extend its reach beyond France and Belgium. “We are always looking for new opportunities,” a spokesperson for Eurostar told Business Traveller, “and the new high-speed Paris-Bordeaux line, which means a direct service from London [to Bordeaux], is something we could consider. However, our current focus is to make Amsterdam [a route launched in April] a success.

“With over four million passengers travelling by air last year [there are flights to the Dutch capital from six airports serving London], the potential for the new Amsterdam service is significant. We hope to reach an agreement to operate direct Amsterdam-London trains [currently passengers must change at Brussels Midi station] by the end of 2019.”

It’s true that Eurostar does offer some low fares, but these are restrictive, with little availability at weekends and other business times. Yes Eurostar has Snap fares ( for travel booked at short notice, but these are overly restrictive. They appear geared towards younger travellers who can be more flexible.

Ironically, SNCF already caters for the London-Paris budget market with its day and overnight bus services branded Ouibus. Having trawled through (which also operates services within mainland Europe), I find the acronym SNCF conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, as Nick Brooks notes, “One single operator [ie a monopoly transport operator] cannot establish if it is operating in the most attractive or efficient manner. And the likelihood is very high that it is not.”