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Eurostar at 25 years: Is it the future of travel or past its best?

Simon Calder, Helen Coffey
The Eurostar has come a long way since launching in 1994: AFP/Getty

Simon Calder: For the past 25 years, the cross-Channel train operator has disappointed

Eurostar offers one of the greatest joys of travel.

Board a train at London St Pancras, contender for the most glorious railway terminus in the world. Make the most of the generous baggage allowance. Speed through the misty Kent countryside. Spend 20 minutes burrowing beneath the Channel (with perfect mobile phone reception), feeling smug about your carbon footprint relative to flying.

Emerge into a blur of sunshine in Flanders. And arrive in one of Europe’s great capitals, whether Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris, or one of the fine cities put on the map by Eurostar: Lille or Rotterdam.

Yet, like most British travellers to Europe, I don’t often find myself aboard one of the smart 186mph trains. Because, bluntly, in a world of immense travel choice, the sums don’t usually stack up for me. That is why, in 25 years, Eurostar has barely reached half the annual passenger numbers that were anticipated in its first decade, and why I am at an airport far more than I should be.

Earlier this year I found myself in the ludicrous position of leaving Gare du Nord in Paris at the same time as a Eurostar non-stop to London – but aboard a slow RER train out to Charles de Gaulle airport.

By the time the Eurostar was gliding into the elegance of St Pancras, I was still waiting to board a delayed easyJet flight. I flew into Southend airport, and eventually arrived at London Liverpool Street two hours behind the train. But Eurostar wanted well over £200 for a short-notice ticket, while easyJet was content with just £50.

I am quite prepared to pay a premium for the ease of a seamless journey, being looked after by friendly and professional staff, but there are limits. And ever since Eurostar started connecting the two biggest cities of western Europe a quarter-century ago, price has been a deterrent.

In 1994, when the “Chunnel” was an exciting component of the traveller’s vocabulary, Eurostar’s minimum return ticket of £95 was a relative bargain. Air France and British Airways cheerfully took a lot more from their captive market between London and Paris.

Over the 25 years, Eurostar has been obliged to cut its prices – and sporadically offers tickets for as little as £50 return using its innovative “Snap” promotion, whereby you specify the date and find out 48 hours ahead the actual train you are booked on.

But mostly prices look punitive. On every one of the 15 departures from London to Paris today, Eurostar is charging a minimum of £191 – three times the fare from Gatwick on Vueling.

Understandably, Eurostar extracts whatever it can from the price-insensitive business traveller who needs city-to-city transport; from tourists who see the journey as part of the adventure; and from a slowly increasing clientele who are actively trying to cut down on flying.

But for anything other than a centre-to-centre journey, the ease and value of Eurostar rapidly erodes. The formidably expensive “Regional Eurostar” services intended to connect Glasgow with Paris and Cardiff with Brussels were scrapped before they had even begun. The sky-high air fares on which Eurostar had based its business plans plummeted when the likes of easyJet and Ryanair got going.

Ventures deeper into Europe have always been tentative: the once-daily London-Marseille link, connecting the Thames with the Mediterranean, is now a relative rarity.

The St Pancras-Amsterdam service that began in 2018 is a success, but unfortunately trains cannot run direct from the Dutch capital to London because of bureaucratic tangles – passengers have to change trains at Brussels Midi, which is about as far from travel joy as you can get.

I will be at St Pancras to mark the 25th anniversary, and have booked a £42 one-way ticket to Paris well ahead. But I know that in 2020 I will once again regrettably spend much more time at London’s airports than I will at the grand departure point for Eurostar.

My prescriptions for better Channel Tunnel trains are much easier to say than to implement. First, make through journeys easier to buy. You can book a flight from Manchester to Madrid in about two minutes on your smartphone. Good luck sorting out rail tickets in less than an hour – and woe betide you if one leg of the journey goes wrong, because missed connections are not well coordinated between train operators.

Next, the infrastructure providers – High Speed One, Eurotunnel and SNCF Réseau – should renegotiate their tariffs to incentivise an increase in passenger numbers. While it is rational for budget airlines to offer £15 fares in some circumstances, the charging regime means that a £50 return Snap ticket is barely break-even for Eurostar – which is hoping I’ll buy some onboard snacks to turn a tiny profit.

Such a move would be worthwhile for the infrastructure firms, because it would lure in, at long last, some competition. And as the airline world shows, that is just what Eurostar needs in order to thrive in the next 25 years.

Helen Coffey: The Eurostar is green, glamorous...and you can take a tinned cocktail onboard

I love the Eurostar.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t play favourites. But if you can’t say it on the cross-channel train’s 25th birthday, when can you, eh?

I love it. I love it the way that brands – and people – always strive but often fail to be loved: unconditionally, passionately, at times stubbornly. I’m not blind to the fact it’s not perfect; who among us is? But I reckon it comes pretty damn close.

Is it as quick as flying? No. As cheap? Hell no. But what it lacks in speed and bargains it makes up for in pure, unadulterated style. Perhaps it’s because I’m too young to have been around for the golden age of flying, when taking off was all elegance and extensive legroom – for me, Eurostar fills the glamour gap that continental travel is elsewhere so sorely lacking.

There’s something so civilised about arriving just 40 minutes before your train, swishing through security still wearing your shoes and with whatever liquids you like (with no need to unpack them into that rather gauche clear plastic bag), and sinking into a wide, comfortable seat that feels like an armchair. You can grab some high-class snacks at St Pancras; you can channel your inner Diane Abbott and drink an M&S cocktail in a can should you have had the foresight to take one with you. You can – and this is a big one – log on to the wifi in order to keep mindlessly scrolling through social media without missing a beat. Yes, the internet can be a little patchy – and I say this as someone who once attempted to keep up a liveblog on the first passenger journey from London to Amsterdam – but heck, it is travelling at up to 186mph through an underwater tunnel. Let’s cut it some slack.

Then there’s the chicness of arriving smack bang in the middle of your destination, with non-dried out skin and no need to fumble around looking for a transfer bus to rumble you the 60 or so minutes into the city centre.

My love has only grown since the service expanded into the Netherlands, whizzing passengers to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in just 3h 13m and 3h 55m respectively. It’s how I discovered the country’s second city, my favourite short break destination of 2019; it’s how I found that it’s possible to pack in quite a lot on a “day trip” to the Dutch capital with just three hours to play with before needing to catch the return train. Yes, it would be slicker if the journey back were also direct (at the moment travellers must get the Thalys train to Brussels Midi and change to the Eurostar after going through security and customs checks). But the company has promised that a new direct return service will finally begin operating from 15 December. Phew, my love can remain undiminished!

I have a confession: there’s a big green incentive behind my ardour, too. In the year that the terms “flight shame” and “train brag” went mainstream, there’s something extra pleasing about travelling by rail. It soothes my inner climate worrier, just a little, and will become even more vital in 2020 – when I attempt to give up flying for a whole year. It’s a daunting task, but one that becomes just that bit more doable thanks to my old friend. So here’s to you, Eurostar: 25 years young, with no sign of slowing down. Happy birthday, baby.

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