Cross-Channel train operator Eurostar complained on Tuesday that slower post-Brexit passport checks for travelers are forcing it to run some services almost a third off.
The Eurostar Group now includes the Eurostar service from France and Belgium to London and the Thalys services connecting Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris.
On Tuesday, the group unveiled a new joint logo to adorn trains on both route networks, along with an ambitious plan to grow to 30 million passengers a year by 2030.
But the cross-channel route from Paris and Amsterdam to London is still hampered by the fallout from Brexit, with travelers facing increased passport controls.
British visitors must now have their documents stamped as they arrive and leave the EU, slowing their passage even through British border points at European stations. EU citizens, meanwhile, must show they comply with UK immigration rules.
“We cannot offer enough seats because of these station bottlenecks,” said Gwendoline Cazenave, chief executive of the joint group since October last year.
In 2019, before the twin travel crises of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, Eurostar and Thalys services carried 19 million passengers a year.
In 2022, passengers returned, but the numbers carried were even lower: the Eurostar cross-channel service carried 8.3 million passengers and the Thalys high-speed service 6.5 million.
“We haven’t been able to get back to 2019 service levels because the border crossing is so slow,” Cazenave said.
Today there are 14 return journeys a day between Paris and London, for example. In 2019 there were between 17 and 18.
And now this less number of trains is partially working.
– Profitable again –
Cazenave said there were not enough border staff to check passports and she was concerned about the future introduction of a new digital entry/exit system (EES) for the Schengen travel area, due to start this year.
“We used to ask customers to arrive half an hour before the train, now it’s an hour,” he said.
At peak times, Eurostar has to limit capacity to 700 of the 870 available seats on a train in order to allow passengers to board on time, taking into account the time required to clear passport controls.
In Amsterdam, Eurostar can only take 250 passengers on a cross-channel service, with a further 175 boarding in Rotterdam.
The group is concerned that when the EES entry system for the Schengen passport area comes into use, then passenger flows will slow down even more.
Eurostar almost went bankrupt in 2021 and Thalys also asked for help from its shareholders.
The new combined group has 850 million pounds ($1 billion) in debt, according to Cazenave.
Travelers have been back since early 2022 and he said the group had returned to operating profit in the second half of last year.
Eurostar Group is a Brussels-based holding company owned 55.75 percent by French state-owned SNCF Voyageurs, 19.31 percent by a Quebec public investment bank, 18.5 percent by Belgian company SNCB and 6.44 percent by US-based federal Hermes Infrastructure.
Eurostar was chosen as the name of the new group as it was better known than Thalys outside Europe, Cazenave said.