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Future of Eurostar services from Ashford International and Ebbsfleet International remains uncertain


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Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel in May 1994 and the start of Eurostar services later that year, Kent has seen its economy boosted by its transport links to Europe.

But as a result of the pandemic international rail services from Ashford and Ebbsfleet have been suspended indefinitely and the future remains unclear, as Rhys Griffiths reports.

During that first lockdown of spring 2020, deserted town centres and eerily quiet transport hubs gave us a glimpse of what the world is like when you put the economy - and much of life as we knew it - on hold.

Since the country, and much of the world, emerged from the tightest restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we have seen people flood back into these spaces as life returns to something like normality.

The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Ashford's international railway station.

Entering the terminal building from Avenue Jacques Faucheux, it is as if we are still in the darkest depths of lockdown. The cavernous space is almost deserted, its counters shuttered and signs hastily put up in early weeks of the pandemic still advise would-be passengers that the international station is "temporarily closed". Temporarily closed now for two years and counting.

Despite the lifting of restrictions on movement which brought the travel industry to its knees, Eurostar, the firm which runs passenger services from London to the continent, has said its timetable will not include stops at Ashford or Ebbsfleet until 2023 at the earliest.

A sign for passengers at Ashford's international railway station
A sign for passengers at Ashford's international railway station
A deserted walkway between the station and multi-storey car park
A deserted walkway between the station and multi-storey car park
The entrance to Ashford International on Avenue Jacques Faucheux
The entrance to Ashford International on Avenue Jacques Faucheux

The lack of clarity on when we can expect to see Kent's stations reconnected to the international high-speed rail network is causing concern in the county, especially in light of the huge £10 million investment in the 2018 'Ashford Spurs' project which saw signalling upgraded to enable Eurostar’s new e320 trains to call at Ashford.

"There has been a lot of money poured into ensuring that Kent has links to the rest of Europe by train and that's not being used at the moment," an industry insider, who wished to remain anonymous, told KentOnline.

"We are all pushing rail as a sustainable option and I think we all, as a rail industry, have an interest in making rail as sustainable an option as possible.

"That involves having the stations where people can get to them.

"Yeah, it's great that Eurostar is in place, and yes it's all well and good going up to London to come back out again, but let's just hope that the market picks up and that they can feel confident of running running some sort of service, even if it's just a handful of trains a day from Ashford and from Ebbsfleet, to link up with the continent."

Access to international sections of the station remains shut off to the public
Access to international sections of the station remains shut off to the public
A Eurostar e320 train on the move in Kent
A Eurostar e320 train on the move in Kent
Pre-pandemic marketing material for Disneyland Paris remains in place
Pre-pandemic marketing material for Disneyland Paris remains in place

It is widely acknowledged the impact of lockdown on international travel, for business and for leisure, posed an existential threat to Eurostar, which accessed the furlough scheme for employees but otherwise received no other financial support from the UK government.

"My impression is that there's no appetite from this government to support what is essentially a French and Belgian-owned rail company," our industry source said, "because that's not the flavour of this particular administration.

"So I don't see any big change in the foreseeable future in terms of public support, and there are obviously lots and lots of demands on the public purse.

"As a rail industry person, I do have a huge amount of sympathy for them, in that they've not been able to run the service that they'd like to because the economics are quite tough."

We asked Eurostar to explain how it is measuring the business case for the viability of restoring direct trains from Ashford and Ebbsfleet, but the company would not engage in specifics.

A largely empty car park at the international railway station in Ashford
A largely empty car park at the international railway station in Ashford
The international terminal sits largely deserted
The international terminal sits largely deserted

"We will review the decision towards the end of the year," a company spokesman said.

"We will make our decision based on general business performance but also looking in particular at how the local market has evolved since Covid."

This wait-and-see approach causes concern in some quarters, with some fearing it will be impossible to demonstrate demand for a service which has been suspended for more than two years and will not operate until 2023 at the earliest.

Mark Smith, who runs the online railway guide The Man in Seat 61, said: "Eurostar has been in a very tight spot over the last two years, denied by both British and French governments the same help that competing airlines received.

"During the pandemic, passenger numbers have been so low, the cost of opening up security and border controls at the small stations couldn't be justified.

Eurostar services to Europe have been suspended since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic
Eurostar services to Europe have been suspended since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic
Mark Smith is the Man in Seat 61
Mark Smith is the Man in Seat 61

"Eurostar's prime objective at this point was survival.

"In 2022, most countries have dropped testing and other Covid-related entry requirements, passenger numbers are bouncing back quite strongly and Eurostar are progressively ramping up departures.

"I'm often asked when Eurostar will resume calls at Ebbsfleet and Ashford, and I hope that this will happen as soon as passenger volumes are sufficient to justify the basic operating costs.

"Waiting until passenger volumes have returned to full pre-pandemic levels will be too long, and may hinder that growth."

This view on the dangers of further delay is echoed by French political candidate Artus Galiay, who is seeking to represent the UK as part of the Third constituency for French residents overseas.

Artus Galiay is standing for the French National Assembly to represent Kent, the UK and Northern Europe. Picture: Artus Galiay
Artus Galiay is standing for the French National Assembly to represent Kent, the UK and Northern Europe. Picture: Artus Galiay
Ashford International station has been upgraded to allow Eurostar trains to call
Ashford International station has been upgraded to allow Eurostar trains to call

Galiay, who is running in next month's elections to the National Assembly for the centre-right Les Républicains, says the return of timetabled trains to and from Ashford and Ebbsfleet is crucial for economic recovery on both sides of the Channel.

Speaking to KentOnline earlier this year, the former central banker said: "Economies are up and running, both in the UK and in France, despite Covid. So in my view it is really time to resume these services as soon as possible.

"Eurostar say that they will not resume services until 2023 at the earliest. The problem is that the longer you keep them closed, the more you kill that business model in the long term because people will simply stop relying on them.

"So some French people may decide that they will no longer set up in Kent if there are no Eurostar services, and everyone in Kent is affected.

"It makes no sense geographically speaking for people in Kent to have to go back to London to catch a train to go to Europe."

Will Eurostar one day face competition from another operator? Picture: Nathan Gallagher
Will Eurostar one day face competition from another operator? Picture: Nathan Gallagher
The multi-storey car park at Ashford International
The multi-storey car park at Ashford International

Galiay believes, as many industry figures do, that competition on a route that Eurostar currently has a monopoly over is key to improving options for passengers and potentially opening up alternative services from stations like Ebbsfleet and Ashford. He has started a petition calling for a new firm to enter the market.

Eurostar pays Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, fees based on the number of trains run and the volume of passengers carried. The same would apply to any future rail operator entering the market in competition with Eurostar, providing an incentive for Getlink to open up spare capacity through the tunnel for international passenger trains.

The difficulty is the high barrier to entry in the market. Because of the nature of the infrastructure and its attendant safety regulations, specialised rolling stock is required to operate through the Channel Tunnel.

This means any entrant to the market would need to invest an eye-watering amount on trains before seeing any income from passengers, but Getlink is now exploring its own investment in rolling stock to remove this hurdle.

A spokesman for the Tunnel operator said: "Acquiring rolling stock approved by the Channel Tunnel regulator is a costly and time consuming task, as Deutsche Bahn (the German national railway company) found when they tried to start services for the London Olympics.

A Deutsche Bahn train passing through the Tunnel in 2010. Picture: John Keefe
A Deutsche Bahn train passing through the Tunnel in 2010. Picture: John Keefe
A deserted and shuttered Ashford International railway station
A deserted and shuttered Ashford International railway station
The multi-storey car park is hardly used now Eurostar has been suspended
The multi-storey car park is hardly used now Eurostar has been suspended

"We are looking at the option of buying and leasing the trains to remove a perceived barrier to entry to the high-speed market.

"Getlink has always favoured increased competition. It would lead to more choice for consumers, additional destinations and better services as operators seek to differentiate their offering.

"The Channel Tunnel has always had an open access policy and we welcome additional traffic whether it is for passenger or rail freight."

While the German state operator has long been linked with London services to the continent, its interest has waned significantly in recent years.

Now Renfe, the state-owned railway of Spain, is widely viewed as one of the most likely rivals to Eurostar, with Getlink confirming it has "expressed an interest in running high speed services through the tunnel in the future".

"Eurostar is really very good, but it could be even better if it had a little bit of competition..."

"It would be a huge barrier crossed into giving Eurostar the competition it needs," our industry insider said of the potential for Getlink to lease rolling stock to a new entrant to the cross-Channel market.

"The general view is that Eurostar is really very good, but it could be even better if it had a little bit of competition. That is the nature of what we're looking at, and if you look at Italy where they've got quite a lot of open access on their high-speed lines it works very, very well.

"I was told a while ago that it (the Channel Tunnel) is only about 50% full, that's obviously the shuttles, the Eurostar, some freight, but there's still a lot more room for everything else."

While the idea of Getlink leasing Tunnel-ready rolling stock to Renfe is an exciting prospect for those keen on increased cross-Channel competition - not just for Eurostar but for short-haul aviation - it is not something that will happen any time soon.

Commissioning and delivery of new trains would take years, time that politicians and business leaders in Kent fear we do not have to waste.

Ashford MP Damian Green. Picture: Andy Jones
Ashford MP Damian Green. Picture: Andy Jones

Ashford MP Damian Green has been among those talking up the importance of the town once again being plugged in to the continent's high-speed rail network.

"While I absolutely believe they should come back as soon as possible, I have to be realistic as they have already said that they won't come back until next year at the earliest," he said.

"During the course of this year I'm talking to Kent County Council as to when we should return to the charge in convincing Eurostar to return.

"If we have a summer of normal traffic then they will see the market is coming back, and then I will be on to them along with many others in Kent saying 'let's have a firm return date'.

"It's a question of pushing, but also being realistic. There's no point in demanding they open tomorrow if they're not ready to, but I will absolutely be pushing when the time is right."

No international trains call at Ebbsfleet International railway station. Picture: Nick Johnson
No international trains call at Ebbsfleet International railway station. Picture: Nick Johnson

Getlink has recently announced its revenues were up 55% in the first quarter of 2022, with the company saying the rise was primarily because of an upturn in fees from Eurostar as its passenger numbers have risen post-pandemic.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council, told us he believes this evidence of recovery in the market should point towards the restoration of direct links to and from Kent.

"Reports that Eurostar passenger traffic is returning is a positive sign that the resumption of services from Ashford International is drawing ever closer," he said.

"We understand Eurostar's commercial position, which has been based on the recent significant reduction in demand for international travel in these uncertain times. However, the services at Ashford International station are not only important for existing businesses and travellers, they are also important for our future commercial investments.

"The prospect that Eurostar services will not return to Ashford International until 2023 represents a real challenge for those residents and businesses that rely on the service, and those that work at the station.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson is leader of Ashford Borough Council. Picture: Gary Browne
Cllr Gerry Clarkson is leader of Ashford Borough Council. Picture: Gary Browne

"Eurostar services must return and continue to have a positive impact on the prosperity of the local area and wider East Kent region."

Cllr Clarkson's view on the economic importance of transport links is echoed by Jo James OBE, chief executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, who said: "Both Ebbsfleet and Ashford have grown significantly on the back of the international connectivity via Eurostar, therefore it is vital going forward that we do all we can to ensure that these services are retained.

"Ashford in particular has grown its international reputation on the back of the Eurostar service.

"Coupled with the high-speed service to London, the connectivity to Europe and the rest of the UK has certainly put the town on the map and attracted exciting new developments like Brompton and the Ashford International Film Studios.

"If the town is to continue to attract inward investment, then we need to maintain the ease of connectivity."

Ashford International station is key to ongoing regeneration of the town
Ashford International station is key to ongoing regeneration of the town

Kent is clearly crying out for the return of Eurostar services at the earliest opportunity, and our politicians say they will lobby hard for this to happen as soon as possible.

The Department for Transport also says it wants to see the Ashford and Ebbsfleet international stations back in action as soon as "reasonably possible and commercially viable".

But for now the outcome remains in the hands of Eurostar itself as it promises a review by the end of this year. And if it does not see the value in reconnecting the county to the continent, perhaps in the long term someone else will.

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