Virgin Tunnel: Richard Branson could challenge Eurostar monopoly
Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, is reportedly gearing up for a bid to break Eurostar’s long-held monopoly on Channel Tunnel rail services. The news, according to sources cited by The Telegraph newspaper in London, proposes that there may be a red liveried train in the Channel Tunnel to rival the familiar grey of Eurostar. The move, if confirmed, marks Branson’s return to the UK rail sector. It is four years after his Virgin Trains operation was controversially ousted from its West Coast franchise.
There have been attempts to challenge Channel Tunnel passenger operations in the past. The furthest these have ever progressed was a test run by a train of Deutsche Bahn (DB). A Spanish-backed operator has made proposals recently, but if reports of a Virgin Group operation come to fruition, it would mark the first time since the Tunnel opened in 1994 that an independent operator has successfully challenged the original tri-national operator Eurostar.
Signature publicity stunt at St Pancras
Richard Branson, the man behind the Virgin Group of companies, has come a a long way since his iconic record company took a massive gamble on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells concept album. That bet paid off enormously, and eventually led to the group of companies that spans health clubs to space flight. The group has had its successes and failures, but the one thing that stands out as a thorny issue is the removal of Virgin from its prized passenger rail franchise on West Coast Main Line of the UK. Clearly, that is something about which Virgin and Richard Branson still feel aggrieved.
Now, if the reports from London are true, the mercurial Branson is lining up a return to the rail industry in an international capacity. Typically for the Virgin founder, it would be high profile, and it would have experienced personnel behind it. Phil Whittingham, former boss of Virgin Trains, is rumoured to be leading the initiative to introduce a rival operation to Eurostar. Although still in the early stages, preparations are allegedly underway for a signature publicity stunt at London’s St Pancras International station, the British terminus for European rail services.
Reinstatement of international train services to Kent
The news has been greeted with speculation that the stations in Kent – Ebbsfleet and Ashford, both abandoned by Eurostar during the pandemic – could see services provided by the new carrier. Eurostar has held a monopoly on high-speed continental passenger train services through the Channel Tunnel since 1994. Eurostar has faced criticism, especially in Kent, for not stopping at stations in the county since the onset of the pandemic, but it could potentially face multiple direct competition, including that from Branson’s Virgin Group.
This development comes on the heels of an announcement by Spanish company Evolyn expressing interest in challenging Eurostar’s dominance. Local politician and representative Member of Parliament for Ashford , Damian Green has been reported in local media that he hopes this competition could lead to the reinstatement of international train services to Kent, a sentiment echoed by over 23,000 residents who signed a petition earlier this year, initially demanding that Eurostar reinstate stops in the county.
A familiar face back on the rails
While Virgin Group has not officially confirmed the claims, industry insiders suggest that Virgin would have a strong chance of succeeding in cross-Channel routes. They point to the extensive experience gains by the Group while running UK train operating franchises from 1997 to 2019. While declining to comment specifically on Virgin’s plans, GetLink, the company that runs the Tunnel, expressed a general welcome for the growth in traffic through the Channel Tunnel, whether from the current incumbent, Eurostar, or new entrants to the market.
It may not be the vacuum of Hyperloop, another concept that has attracted the mercurial Branson, but the potential entry of Virgin into the Channel Tunnel market coincides with technical improvements in the tunnel, making it more feasible for additional operators to run services. Specifically, a harmonisation of signalling and train protection systems would significantly reduce the technological challenges of adapting trains to meet the national standards on each side of the Channel, as well as those within the tunnel itself. The prospect of the familiar bearded grin of Richard Branson welcoming travellers back on to the rails could inject a fresh dynamic into the high-speed rail services connecting London and Europe.