Cross-Channel high-speed rail operator Eurostar is “fighting for survival” and has urged the UK government to help it ride out a coronavirus-induced collapse in passenger numbers, as Westminster this week signed off on tax relief for major airports in England.
Eurostar has substantially cut the number of trains it operates per day between Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Paris, due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic and lack of demand from passengers.
According to the current schedule for the next two weeks, just two trains will depart London every day, with one of the services calling at both Amsterdam and Brussels. Eurostar plans to put on more trains closer to the normally busy Christmas holidays.
Before the pandemic, there were around 50 inbound and outbound trains every day. Current services deploy social-distancing measures, although a recent first direct train from Amsterdam to London still ran almost empty, as there is little to no demand.
On Wednesday, a Eurostar spokesperson said that the firm “has been left fighting for its survival against a 95% drop in demand, whilst aviation has received over £1.8 billion [€2 billion] in support through loans, tax deferrals and financing.”
“We would ask this scheme to be extended to include international rail services, and more generally for the government to incorporate high-speed rail in its support for the travel sector, and in doing so help protect the green gateway to Europe,” they added.
Government support for aviation could prove disadvantageous to Eurostar, which has made significant inroads over the past two decades into the short-haul flights market. The number of seats on the London-Paris air link has shrunk 55% since 1994.
The general secretary of rail union RMT, Mick Cash, said in a statement that “RMT is calling on the government to step in immediately to give lifeline financial support for the important international infra-structure role fulfilled by Eurostar and the thousands of jobs supported both directly and indirectly by the service.”
“It is wholly wrong that Eurostar, an eco-friendly service that is a beacon for the future of our railways, is being denied the kind of financial support being offered to the airports,” Cash added. Eurostar says its services emit up to 90% fewer emissions compared to the equivalent plane journey.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said that “the government has been engaging extensively with Eurostar on a regular basis since the beginning of the outbreak. We will continue to work closely with them as we support the safe recovery of international travel.”
Eurostar reportedly also wants a review of the charges that it pays to use Britain’s only stretch of high-speed track, which links London to the Channel Tunnel entrance.
France’s national train company SNCF owns a majority stake in Eurostar, which is due to merge with Franco-Belgian high-speed firm Thalys next year. It is unclear whether the malaise the sector currently finds itself in will derail those plans.
Coronavirus aside, Eurostar may also have to contend with Brexit-related disruption as there is still uncertainty about how the Channel Tunnel will be managed once the UK’s transition period ends on 31 December.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]