Coronavirus has caused a collapse in travel at Eurostar, the operator of passenger trains between Britain and the Continent — and politicians are calling for a joint Franco-British rescue.
“Eurostar’s traffic has fallen by over 95 percent; services have been stripped back to a bare minimum. It needs a joint, bespoke U.K.-French solution to help it through this crisis,” Huw Merriman, a Conservative MP who chairs the U.K. parliament’s Transport Committee, said on Wednesday.
Similar calls are coming from France.
The French government is prepared to help Eurostar and is in talks with the United Kingdom on how to go about it, France’s Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Thursday.
“The state will be there for Eurostar in order to maintain these strategic connections between the two countries,” Djebbari told a parliamentary hearing.
It’s a sign that the pleas for help are becoming difficult to ignore.
“The situation is critical, thanks to the health conditions in many countries which are added to Brexit,” Jean-Pierre Farandou, the chief executive of French rail operator SNCF and a 55 percent owner of Eurostar, told France Inter radio on Tuesday. He said that the single train a day that now runs between London and Paris has only 10 percent of its seats filled.
“We are discussing with the French and English governments. We hope to arrive at a solution to aid the company,” he said.
Eurostar has not minced its words. There is a “real risk to the survival of Eurostar” without support, the company said in a statement. It wants to see the kind of government-backed loans that have been awarded to airlines, as well as a reduction in track access charges.
For now, London hasn’t opened its wallet to save Eurostar — which in addition to SNCF is 40 percent owned by Canadian investment companies and 5 percent by Belgium’s national rail company.
“I suppose that the French government will support Eurostar, but not alone,” Yves Crozet, a transport economist at the University of Lyon in France, told the U.K. parliamentary committee. “We will have probably an arm wrestling between the U.K. and France about that.
“But clearly Eurostar is a subsidiary of SNCF and SNCF has the majority of the capital. So clearly the money will come from France in a very important part but maybe France will ask [the] U.K. to give also some hand to the system,” he said.
Eurostar’s troubles are causing wider worries.
Belgium’s Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet is exploring support measures but said he is hamstrung by European law. The Netherlands is worried about losing train connections from Rotterdam and Amsterdam to London.
The rescue appeals are couched in green terms.
Getlink, the Paris-based company which owns the Channel Tunnel, is also calling for government support for Eurostar, touting the operator’s green credentials to the British government and making comparisons with the aviation sector.
“In the long term, Eurostar is the transport of the future: fast, frequent, low carbon and with great potential to expand to other destinations. Their business and leisure passengers will be back as soon as conditions allow,” said John Keefe, Getlink’s director of public affairs.
If Eurostar goes under, it leaves a big hole in Getlink’s finances, one that’s unlikely to be filled by replacing passenger trains with cargo ones.
“Even before the pandemic, we weren’t really experiencing a shortage of capacity,” said Conor Feighan, secretary-general of the European Rail Freight Association. “Even though there was capacity being freed up due to the Eurostar no longer being active, there wasn’t a situation where rail freight was crying out for capacity in the tunnel.”
“We don’t really see any positives to take from Eurostar struggling because if anything, it will call into question the long term viability of further development of the tunnel,” he said.
There’s also little chance that another operator would be easily able to step in and replace Eurostar if it goes under, said Tony Berkeley, an adviser to the Rail Freight Group who worked as an engineer on the Channel Tunnel and now sits in the House of Lords.
“If another operator wanted to start, they’d have to find some trains, or get new ones built, which would take three or four years. And they would have to have a hell of a big capital resource to fund all the startup costs, special trains, all the safety rules that go with it,” he said.
This article has been updated with comments from French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari.