Peak-time Eurostar trains are forced daily to run across the Channel with hundreds of empty seats because the border police can’t process passports fast enough.
Eurostar bosses said around 350 seats out of 900 are usually left unsold on first services between London, Paris and Brussels despite “huge demand” for the greenest form of international travel.
British passports must be stamped separately, even for travelers who can pass through electronic gates, since Brexit. Chief executive Gwendolyn Cazenave said passengers are now required to arrive 90 minutes before some flights depart, but bottlenecks at stations still mean not all can be processed in time.
She said the Covid pandemic, when international travel was largely excluded, had “significantly reduced the number of border police in Paris Nord and St Pancras” and, with Brexit rules in place, “you have to stamp British passports”.
Cazenave, who has run the group since October 2022, added: “Even me – I have a work permit, and they know who I am – they ask: ‘What are you going to do in the UK?'” It takes about 30% more time [than before]. “
It said tackling capacity issues at stations was its main priority, as Eurostar could only offer about 70% of its pre-Covid and Brexit seats across the channel.
Only 250 seats can be filled when leaving Amsterdam due to a lack of space at the station for border control, yet London to the Dutch capital is one of the busiest air routes in Europe, Cazenave said.
It said demand for UK travel was massive, with leisure fully returning and around 80-85% more business travelers than in 2019.
She added, “Unfortunately, we cannot provide enough seats due to congestion at the station.”
It ruled out bringing back the popular Eurostar ski-train service or reopening Ebbsfleet and Ashford stations in Kent until the situation on the larger hubs was resolved.
Chief Commercial Officer François Le Doze said that while early morning trains were generally hardest hit, to avoid escalating delays, seats were limited on all-day services. “We’ve become experts at capping trains – adjusting the number of seats available,” he said.
He acknowledged that the prices were making prices more affordable for travelers who wanted more eco-friendly travel: “It’s like organic food. As long as there is a capacity issue, it presents some difficulties,” he added.
Queue and capacity restrictions are likely to be exacerbated when the EU entry and exit regime is introduced for foreign travellers, including UK nationals. It has now been delayed until at least the end of 2023. Cazenave said the delay was welcome but was still “a major concern”.
Cazenave was speaking in Brussels as Eurostar unveiled a new logo following its merger last year with Franco-Belgian high-speed operator Thalys, and reaffirmed its ambition to grow to 30 million passengers by 2030, from a total of 19 million across the two companies in 2019.
They will be brought together under a single website and booking system from October 2023, allowing for easy booking of direct and connecting flights between London and the continent. UK passengers will be able to purchase Eurostar tickets for German destinations including Cologne and Dortmund, via Brussels.
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