Eurostar says it wants to bring its services back to Kent - but the impact of Brexit and "hundreds of millions" of pounds of Covid debt means it cannot yet afford to.
No international services have pulled into Ashford and Ebbsfleet since the first lockdown in March 2020, sparking anger among passengers who now have to travel to London to catch services bound for the continent.
Gareth Williams, the firm's general secretary, says although there is great demand in the county, bosses are unable to commit to trains once again stopping in Kent.
More than 30,000 people have signed a petition calling for services to return to the county, but Mr Williams says it is not currently an option.
Speaking at a meeting of the joint transportation board at Ashford Borough Council, he offered a rare update on the company's position and said it is still looking at running Kent services.
"We want to grow and diversify the business so we will continue to look at Kent, but at the moment it's driven by the numbers and tough decisions," he said.
"The market we had is evident in the 30,000 signatures we have seen from the petition.
“But in the context of the overall business, it is not a huge market; it is less than 3% of our UK passengers, but it is a steady and loyal market."
At the meeting, councillors and members of the 'Bring Back Eurotrains' residents' group, which started the petition, pleaded with the firm to reconsider.
But Mr Williams added: “Closing the service was not a trivial decision or isolated.The same has been the case for Ebbsfleet and Calais.
“Context is critical. Covid cut Eurostar’s revenue by 97% for 18 months and, unlike airlines, we don't have the cargo business to fall back on.
“The airlines got £7 billion in state aid by way of cheap Covid loans and we didn't.
“That means we had to borrow from shareholders and banks at full commercial rates for hundreds of millions of pounds to keep the business alive."
Last year, Eurostar confirmed it would not be running services to or from stations in Kent in 2023 or 2024, with a review due in 2025.
A new post-Brexit biometric border check system set to be introduced is also hampering efforts to bring the service back to Kent.
Travellers leaving the UK will have to register their fingerprints and a photograph to be linked to their passports before boarding flights, trains and ships.
Mr Williams said the Entry-Exit System (EES) “poses a serious risk” to the company’s business, with border capacity in London alone at about 80% compared to before Brexit.
The system is expected to add another layer of checks when people arrive at border points.
Just this week, bosses at the Port of Dover revealed plans to reclaim land from the sea to create additional space to cope with potential delays and prevent disruption at the ferry terminal and around the town.
Mr Williams added: “This context of having to manage hundreds of millions and ration border capacity has forced some really difficult commercial choices.
“We have to focus the entire business on the core routes which make the highest contribution and have the most efficient deployment of resources.”
“Next year is an important year in terms of both those factors.
“We will see how the system of how the European borders plays out and then we will be better placed to asses the business and options.
“I can't come here with a new date for the 2025 review, but I'm certainly not saying never.”
At the meeting, Cllr Paul Bartlett, the ward member for Mersham, Sevington South with Finberry, asked Mr Williams about the prospect of opening up services in Kent in time for the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris next year, before the EES systems come in.
“There is an opportunity for the business to exploit the transport links that Ashford has,” the Conservative exclaimed.
“A large number of customers need to get into Paris and it will demonstrate just what a demand there is in Ashford.”
But in response, Mr Williams, who has been working on Eurostar services to Ashford for 12 years, said: “It's not that there isn't a market from Ashford, but in the position the business finds itself, it needs to focus on making the most efficient use of resources.
“At the moment that means focusing on the London market in order to keep ahead of the debt we owe as a result of Covid.
“We need to pay it off so we have broader and better commercial options in the future.“
With no guarantee of when Kent Eurostar trains will return, one thing the meeting did make clear was that there is nothing stopping a competitor from applying to run cross-channel services through Ebbsfleet and Ashford instead.
Exploring alternative options is something the pressure group Bring Back Eurotrains is also calling for and it has even suggested using high-speed Javelins between the link.
However, these trains do not meet the regulations needed to use the Channel Tunnel.
But if another company were to purchase the approved shuttles - made by Siemens - and apply to run the service, it could, in theory, take over.
Mr Williams explained: “Access to Ashford station is all regulated.
“It is an open agreement that anyone can apply to.
“Currently, the only train that is cleared to go through the tunnel is made by Siemens.
“There is nothing stopping other competitors from buying some.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, chairman Cllr Bernard Heyes (Con) asked: “Surely if you want the trains to run at full capacity it would be beneficial to stop in Ashford and Ebbsfleet?”
‘It's not that there isn't a market from Ashford, but in the position the business finds itself, it needs to focus on making the most efficient use of resources...’
But in response, Mr Williams said trains from London are already at full capacity.
“If there were empty spots on the train and an additional low-cost contribution to be had, we would be taking it,” said Mr Williams.
“If I had the extra trains, I would be putting them into London services because there is still a demand that hasn't been fully absorbed.
“When the UK left the EU, all UK nationals are now treated as third-country nationals so those passengers require additional checks which slows the process.
“Next year we will have an opportunity to review where we are as a business, and after the Paris Olympics we will see the approach to entry controls for the Shengan border which will put us in the position to review the situation for the following year.
“What I can’t give at this stage is a commitment as to what the outcome will be.
“It sounds and feels like a hard numbers game, but at the moment, in terms of the business's recovery, that's what it is.”
The Bring Back Eurotrains residents’ group was officially set up in June when members met at the Hampton Hotel in Victoria Road, Ashford, to discuss ways to take their campaign forward.
Their fight is being backed by ABC leader Cllr Noel Ovenden (Ashford Ind), who previously said the absence of Eurostar is a “real challenge” for residents and businesses in the district.
He added that the fight to bring Eurostar back to Kent is not over yet and he will explore other ways to bring the links back.
Ashford MP Damian Green (Con) also supports the return of the service but the government says it is unable to intervene, partly because it no longer has a share in the company.
The Treasury sold the government’s stake in the company for £757.1m in 2015, hailing it as a “fantastic deal”.
Company chiefs had appealed to the UK government for a bailout but were rejected.