Autumn 2007 is now confirmed as the launch date for Eurostar's services from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels. At the same time as St Pancras comes on line, the high-speed train operator will close its existing Waterloo terminal.
When it moved to St Pancras it had been thought that Eurostar would seize the opportunity to emulate its airline rivals and go ticketless. But it's not now going to happen straightaway.
"How do you define e-ticketing?" Richard Brown, Eurostar's chief executive, told Business Traveller, "in practice we're pretty close to it now. Passengers using our ticketing machines, key in their reference and get a ticket. That ticket is their boarding card. [Ticketless airlines still provide passengers with a boarding card]. But, you are right, we are looking at getting rid of the boarding pass altogether but the system won't be ready when we open up at St Pancras. Ideally, we believe a 'swipe device' would be attractive for our business passengers."
Using St Pancras will enable Eurostar to cut timings by 20 minutes as it will run on high-speed tracks all the way to the Channel Tunnel. In the longer term Eurostar is looking to realise its potential to feed more passengers into the European rail network. It is extending its Railteam alliance with high-speed firm Thalys (which operates from Paris to Amsterdam and Cologne via Brussels) to include rail companies in a number of countries including Germany, France, Holland and Belgium.
At present it is difficult if not impossible to obtain through tickets (and therefore beneficial fares) on Eurostar into mainland Europe with the chief exception of France (presumably because SNCF, the French national rail operator, is a main shareholder in Eurostar). One reason is because the national rail operators have developed their own ticketing and accountancy systems.
By contrast the airlines are well ahead in terms of co-operation and ticketing. Admits Richard Brown, "the [conventional] airlines started with IATA [an industry trade body] and GDS [booking] systems and these were brokers of common standards and presentation."
There is a growing number of high-speed lines but there are ticketing issues between the rail firms. "The challenge for us," says Richard Brown, "is to present this as a network with seamless connections, through fares, through ticketing and common standards. Where Eurostar has been able to co-operate with national rail systems we've seen strong passenger growth."
One of the first benefits to be seen is the incorporation of the useful Thalys high-speed links into the Eurostar booking system. Richard Brown confirms this move will take effect from the autumn and it will enable passengers leaving London to, for example, connect with Thalys at Brussels for Cologne or Amsterdam. It will also enable them to bridge the gap (with Thalys) when booking a two city trip covering Brussels and Paris.
For more information go to eurostar.com
Report by Alex McWhirter