Eurostar passes on Kent until 2025
Eurostar may have amalgamated with Thalys earlier this year, but there’s no early anticipation of restoring stops at Ashford and Ebbsfleet, the stations largely built to connect Kent with international services. Eurostar’s Chief Executive, Gwendoline Cazenave, has emphasised that the reopening of Kent’s two currently disused stations, along the high-speed rail line to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, will not happen any time soon, and will only be considered when the company deems it can afford to reinstate the intermediate stops.
Cazenave gave her gloomy prediction during a recent brand launch for the merged companies, a move that will see the Thalys brand disappear in favour of the more recognised Eurostar. However, passengers at Kent’s two international stations will not have the opportunity to experience the new brand until at least 2025. Ashford and Ebbsfleet were integral components of the original High Speed One (HS1), the purpose-built line which connects London St Pancras International with the Channel Tunnel.
International services suspended until at least 2025
The loss of direct services from Kent has been put down to the economic after-effects of the pandemic by Eurostar, and the increased border controls required since the UK left the EU. Both Ebbsfleet and Ashford stations provided direct services to Europe, but currently are only served by domestic services, including the popular high-speed “Javelin” which provides a frequent and fast route to London. Eurostar has not committed to a firm reopening date. Original hopes were for a quick return to operational service in 2022, but current projections are for 2025 at the earliest.
Speaking to the British press, Cazenave said it has not been an easy decision to discontinue services to the Kent stations. She noted how the operator had been suffering from significant financial pressures. Indeed Eurostar was hammered by the pandemic, possibly harder than any other transport provider, enduring significant financial losses. During the pandemic, travel restrictions drastically reduced passenger numbers, at times down to less than one per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Brexit borders blamed for more gloom
The challenges persist, with post-Brexit passport control issues limiting capacity. The UK’s request to be treated as a “third country” by the European Union necessitated the establishment of a hard EU border at London St Pancras, where British passports must be inspected and stamped. Some Eurostar trains now have passenger limits to ease the strain on French passport control. Cazenave said that the reopening of the Kent stations hinges on their ability to finance the necessary resources, including investments in technology such as eGates, and the presence of Eurostar and French Police aux Frontières staff at both locations.
Eurostar places a high priority on its primary locations, at St Pancras and Paris Nord, where passenger numbers have significantly recovered. However, the company says it is facing a “multitude of challenges”. Not least there is a huge hurdle to overcome off the tracks. The administrative relationship between the UK and the EU is strained, exacerbated by the delayed high-tech EU Entry Exit System, to which the UK has also subscribed. That delay means facial biometrics and fingerprints have to be collected from British passengers, adding a layer of complexity to an already constrained Eurostar terminal at London St Pancras – and an unacceptably high investment if the Kent stations were to be reinstated to the timetable.
One ray of hope for the stations left out in the cold might be the introduction of competing services on the London – Paris route. The would-be operator Evolyn is understood to have ordered trains for a non-stop London – Paris service. Could that encourage the incumbent to think again? Kent passengers will hope so.