Channel Tunnel hopefuls mount another challenge to Eurostar
The Channel Tunnel could, finally, be on the cusp of an open-access market challenge. There have been false dawns and false starts, but thirty years after its opening, le Tunnel sous la Manche is about to burst into open competition. The Eurostar monopoly for the potentially lucrative London and Paris trade faces a challenge from a name that will be familiar to British readers: National Express.
To all the prosaic names associated with the Channel Tunnel, there is one more waiting in the wings. Mobico may leave everyone who doesn’t read the Financial Times scratching their heads, but for the past month, that has been the official designation of the household name synonymous with long-distance road coach travel. Now National Express is set to burst back onto the British railway scene. The company’s most ambitious project yet, sees it as the fulcrum of a bid to run international rail services between England and France, via the Channel Tunnel, starting as soon as 2025.
We have been here before
It might be the driving force behind the latest attempt to democratise the Channel Tunnel, but don’t expect to see the evocative red, white and blue of National Express hurtling across the Pas de Calais any time soon. The consortium that includes the Birmingham headquartered company, now called Mobico, has continental partners, including Spanish consortium Cosmen and potentially French manufacturer Alstom; and it is reportedly lining up a high-speed rail service between London and Paris under a brand new identity. Prepare to signal the green light on “Evolyn”.
Seasoned Tunnel watchers might well say they’ve seen contenders come under starter’s orders before. There have been previous attempts to break the hegemony of Eurostar, but none have ever carried a single revenue-earning passenger. Deutsche Bahn got as far as running a demonstration train into London’s St Pancras International, but that was ten years ago, and the sleek ICE trains have yet to make a return visit. Spanish national carrier Renfe – no strangers to high-speed operations – toyed with a London-Paris service a couple of years ago, but the only Iberian trains ever to make it under the English Channel have been recent freight consists. Getlink, the operators of the Tunnel itself, reportedly looked into adding its own high-speed passenger service to its popular LeShuttle vehicle ferry. They may have entered the market either as a direct operator or as a lessor of brand-new trains to third-party operators. There are even ambitious plans by a start-up company, Midnight Trains, to run sleeper services, via the Tunnel, between Edinburgh and Paris.
Fragile international train market
The history of dedicated passenger services through the Channel Tunnel has been chequered, to say the least. Grand plans for “Regional Eurostars”, linking northern British cities with European destinations, never ran. The expensive trains were either sold off abroad or ended their active lives covering diagrams between London and Leeds. The core service, between London and Paris, launched directly into the teeth of a deregulation in the skies and a revolution in low-cost air travel, which has continued to undermine the profitability of Eurostar. Then, just as the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit were beginning to heal, and the long-awaited expansion of services beyond Paris and Brussels became a reality, the pandemic struck. Eurostar teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
Only a massive multi-national bail out kept the trains running. It’s been touch and go ever since. Now, into this uncertain climate, comes a counterintuitive bid to take up some of the underused capacity on the Channel Tunnel route, and an attempt to expand the fragile international train market. Even more surprising is the profile of the upstart consortium, embracing as it does such a prominent name in the recent inglorious history of British railway franchising.
Light at the end of the Tunnel?
When known as National Express, the British part of Mobico had a chequered relationship with railway operations. Its most high-profile venture, running the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland, lasted just over two years. The company defaulted and handed back the keys to its franchise commitments, forcing the UK government to step in and take control. Over the 2010s, National Express consciously decoupled from the British passenger heavy rail market, while simultaneously growing its mainly German metro holdings.
Almost forgotten is the company’s early financial involvement in Channel Tunnel operations. National Express had a stake in London and Continental Railways, the very first operator of Eurostar. It may be remembered that the fate of that company ended in nationalisation by the UK government – something of a familiar story. If the nature of railway operations is to return to origin, then Mobico is almost there. The launch of Evoyln services will prove one thing if nothing else. What goes around comes around. Is this really a new era in international train travel, or yet another false dawn shining down the most famous tunnel in the world?