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FOI reveals UK and French government joint rescue package for Eurostar was discussed


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Ministers were pressed to step in to offer Eurostar a joint rescue package with the French government to maintain stopping services at Ashford International and Ebbsfleet Station, it has emerged.

The rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris held a meeting with representatives of the company and other industry chiefs a year ago at which the possibility was discussed.

Rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP was urged to intervene. Picture: Gov.uk
Rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP was urged to intervene. Picture: Gov.uk

It came in the wake of its announcement it was suspending services stopping at the two Kent stations because of the Covid-19 pandemic which had seen passenger numbers plummet.

Details of the meeting were disclosed following a Freedom of Information request made by KentOnline.

A round-table meeting was held last October and attended by the transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris and Dartford MP Gareth Johnson, alongside Eurostar strategy director, Gareth Williams and Dyan Crowther, High Speed One chief executive.

The official “read out” note of the meeting records that the minister was briefed that while Eurostar was French-owned, it was “100% incorporated in the UK and a major asset to the UK, so there is a need for joint action”.

It notes that Mr Johnson said the withdrawal of services was “depressing but not surprising” and “it needs to be the finance ministers who need to get together from both sides of the Channel”.

Dartford MP Gareth Johnson was at the meeting with government and rail officials. Picture: Parliament TV
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson was at the meeting with government and rail officials. Picture: Parliament TV

The minutes suggest the minister appeared open to the idea of aid, quoting him as saying “we will continue to work with everyone to do as much as we possibly can” and asking what the levels of “commercial sensitivities” were.

These were the only comments made by the minister that were disclosed with four others redacted.

The DfT said putting the rail minister’s other comments into the public domain could prejudice the commercial interests of the DfT, Eurostar itself and High Speed One and applied a public interest exemption to withhold them.

It also invoked an exemption allowing it to block disclosure on the grounds that the information related to policy formulation.

In its response to our request, the DFT accepted that “disclosure would provide members of the public with confidence that the government is alive to and engaged with the issues that companies face as a result of the Covid pandemic”.

Eurostar trains will not stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford before 2023 after withdrawing services due to the pandemic
Eurostar trains will not stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford before 2023 after withdrawing services due to the pandemic

At the same time, it argued that if the government was to disclose commercially sensitive information, it would undermine the confidence of future suppliers who could be concerned details of their contracts could be disclosed.

The DfT has also withheld two letters from the company about the issue of services stopping at either of the two Kent stations, saying that they were provided in confidence and to publish them would be a breach of that confidence.

In the event, Eurostar secured a £250 million rescue package from private investors but despite the resumption of services from St Pancras, has indicated that neither Ashford nor Ebbsfleet will be used before 2023.

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