Eurostar – The company

Main linesHigh Speed Rail • Eurostar

Summary: Eurostar is the rail company that operates international high-speed rail services between Brussels, Paris, London and Amsterdam. Originally, in 1994, Eurostar was a cooperative operated by SNCF, SNCB and EPS (Great Britain). Its trademark was the service to London via the Channel Tunnel. Eurostar should not be confused with Eurotunnel, which manages only the Channel Tunnel and has nothing to do with this Franco-British TGV, even though Eurostar uses the so called tunnel and pays a huge toll for it. The cooperative structure became a single company under British law on 1 September 2010, under the name EIL. The pre-pandemic years saw the arrival of the Greensped project, which aimed to merge Eurostar with Thalys. On 1 October 2023, the new Eurostar, incorporated under Belgian law and headquartered in Brussels, was set up with the absorption of the Thalys brand. Eurostar now manages all high-speed traffic across the Benelux, London, Cologne and the Ruhr.

Note: this page is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for the official page of the operating company or manufacturer. 

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Eurostar International was created in 1990 as a cooperative between SNCF, SNCB and what was still called British Rail. British Rail, which had not yet been privatised, had specifically created a division called European Passenger Services, which was responsible for the British section of Eurostar operations. Eurostar trains were managed in cooperation by SNCB, SNCF and EPS, each being responsible for operating Eurostar services in their own territory.

Complexities soon arose on the British side as a result of their new rail policy. On 1 April 1994, EPS signed a fixed-rate track access contract until 29 July 2052 with Railtrack, the new and unfortunate owner of the British rail network. When British Rail was privatised, ownership of EPS was transferred in 1996 to London and Continental Railways (LCR), a property development company owned by the UK government. The transfer was part of the contract for LCR to build and operate High Speed Line 1 (HS1) between London and the Channel Tunnel. The company was renamed Eurostar (UK) Limited and was to use EUKL’s revenues to help fund the HS1 project.

Factsheet

Operator: Eurostar
Subsidiary / shareholders: SNCF, SNCB, CDPQ, Hermès
Sector: Passengers transport
Type of service: Main line
International transport: yes
First services: 14 november 1994
Train type: HST Emu
Manufacturer(s): Alstom – Siemens
Driver service: own
Officiel website: https://www.eurostar.com/uk-en
Social media:
Similar companies : AVE and AVLO RenfeFrecciarossa TrenitaliaICE Deutsche BahniryoNTV-ItaloOuigo EspañaShinkansenTGV SNCF

A technical challenge

The Eurostar service would not have been possible without the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel in June 1994, an old project that had finally become a reality. It was also necessary to connect this tunnel, on the French side, to the high-speed network across the plains of Hauts de France, Lille and the LN3 to Paris. Another line was under construction in Belgium as part of the TGV-Nord européen.

On the British side, on the other hand, it was taken for granted that to reach London-Waterloo station, Eurostar trains would have to use the classic Dover-London-Waterloo line, with its famous current collection by a third lateral rail. Using the UK’s non-UIC network meant adopting TGV trains with a slightly narrower British gauge, which gave rise to the distinctive shape of the TMST CLass 373 trains.

The TMST consortium (Groupe TGV Transmanche created in 1987) was given the task of building a train that no-one had designed before. It’s no exaggeration to say that, for the time, the establishment of the Eurostar service in cooperation was a real technical and commercial challenge, given that the desiderata of three nationalities of customers had to be satisfied, which was not the easiest thing to do…

1994 – Start of service

On 14 November 1994, Eurostar services began running between Brussels-Midi, Paris-Nord and London’s Waterloo International Station.These services also stopped off at another brand new station: Lille-Europe.To ensure the safety of the Channel Tunnel, these stations had a dedicated area where customs operations and baggage sanning were carried out. This arrangement is still in place today.

In 1995, Eurostar reached an average speed of 171.5 km/h from end to end between Paris and London, despite having to take the scenic route through Kent. On 8 January 1996, Eurostar launched services from Ashford International, the second Eurostar station in the UK.

Eurostar
A Eurostar train south of London, at Wandsworth Road, with no catenary but the discreet presence of the third rail for current collection (photo taken in 2006 by Nigel Menzies via flickr)

Services expanded somewhat from London to Brussels and Paris. In June 1996, Eurostar began serving Disneyland throughout the year, while 1997 saw the introduction of services to the French Alps during the winter season. In the meantime, the first Belgian high-speed line was opened for operation in December 1997 as far as the French border, with “Belgian” Eurostars now able to connect Brussels-Midi with Lille-Europe end-to-end at 300km/h.

Eurostar had adopted an initial logo that was reflected both on the trains and in the editorial and marketing materials. The three waves symbolised the three partners, while the little star added a “European”, international touch.

By the end of September 1996, the new timetable already included 13 round trips on weekdays, and even 15 on Fridays on the London-Paris route and 7 round trips on the London-Brussels-Midi route. The very clear objective of Eurostar and the public operators was to fight air travel on two major routes where aviation was offering itself lucrative traffic. The journey time was around 3 hours for Paris-London and 3 hours 16 minutes for Brussels-London, well within the perimeter of attractiveness of the train compared with the plane.

The first statistics were already coming in, with an occupancy rate of 60% on the Paris-London route and only 40% on the Brussels-London route. The length of the trains, with their 794 seats (210 in First and 584 in Second), was the subject of some fears in the face of traffic that consultancy firms had probably overestimated. It should be noted that the length of the trainsets was a requirement of Eurotunnel, as the interconnection branches with the central service tunnel are rightly distributed every 375m.

Eurostar
An Eurostar trainset leaving the Channel Tunnel on the French side, heading for Lille  (photo maxppp)

Specific stations

The safety of the Channel Tunnel and more stringent British customs requirements added even more constraints to the Eurostar project. This had – and still has – an impact on the number of stations served.

In Paris, the Gare du Nord reserved 4 tracks on platforms 3 to 6 for cross-Channel traffic. At Brussels-Midi station, tracks 1 and 2, formerly reserved for parcel and postal traffic, were extended southwards to create two 400-metre-long tracks reserved for Eurostar traffic. As for the new Lille-Europe station, it was designed from the outset for both high speed and the customs constraints of the UK. In London, the first station chosen was a new construction covering 4 tracks and adjoining the existing Waterloo Station. This station was served by the Kent network and was close to Westminster and the River Thames.

What these four stations had in common was that a significant amount of space had to be reserved for boarding and customs formalities, including baggage scanning. As we shall see below, these constraints had major consequences for the choice of other stations to be served.

Four Eurostar TMST Class 373 trainsets at London’s Waterloo International station (photo wikimedia)
Eurostar has sometimes welcomed celebrities. In June 1998, Prince Charles and his son, Prince Harry, took the Eurostar to Paris to attend the World Cup football match between England and Colombia. (photo Getty image)

Two events came to the fore at the turn of the 21st century: the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, which sent shockwaves through the economy and the demand for travel. Secondly, the arrival in European skies of low-cost airlines, with Ryanair in particular, which had taken advantage of the surplus of aircraft to buy dozens of them back cheaply… and offer fares that had never been seen before.

On 28 September 2003, the British brought into service the first section of a new line called CTRL 1 (now HS1), between the tunnel exit at Folkestone and Fawkham Junction in North Kent, already saving 21 minutes on journey time. Eurostar’s punctuality has fluctuated from year to year, but has generally remained above 90%: in the first quarter of 1999, 89% of services operated were on time, rising to 92% in the second quarter. Eurostar’s best ever punctuality record was in 1997.

A complex structure

The management structure, described as ‘Byzantine’ at the time, seemed to pose more problems than solutions, and had become even more complex. The complications of a trinational company that is partly private sector in the UK and partly public sector in France and Belgium proved too onerous to achieve a degree of efficiency and to limit losses. There were two boards, one for the Eurostar group and one for EUKL (UK), with separate meetings and some overlap between the two boards. If it is requested a different policy on Brussels, for example, SNCF would say ‘that’s not our business’,” explained one British manager.

EUKL, which managed Eurostar in the UK, was a company wholly owned by London & Continental Railway (LCR), which was building Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the high-speed line on the British side. This is where things get complicated. LCR was partly owned by SNCF (13%) but also by other shareholders such as Bechtel and Warburg (22% each), in addition to National Express, a British coach and train operator, with a 20% stake.

Eurostar’s operations were managed by Inter Capital and Regional Rail, partly owned by SNCF (35%), SNCB (10%), British Airways (10%) and National Express (40%). This organisation caused numerous problems between the various shareholders. For example, the British shareholders were keen to increase the number of connections with Paris, but this meant considerable extra costs for SNCF, and there was never any agreement on the amount of compensation. Growth was hampered and passenger numbers fell after 2000.

The Frenchman David Azéma, then head of the cooperative, was aware of this and concocted a plan called “Jupiter” with the idea of having a single Eurostar company, 55% owned by SNCF and 40% by LCR, while the Belgians only appear for a few crumbs. In 2003, no major changes were proposed in the organisation of the cooperative and Jupiter was put away, without being thrown out. The British Richard Brown then took over the cooperative after Azéma’s departure.

A Eurostar TMST Class 373 trainset leaves London at the famous Wandsworth Road site. The absence of a catenary means that these trains have to be fitted with a skid on the bogies to capture the current via the third rail, a British speciality. In the background on the right, you can see the famous ‘Battersea’ power station, now a commercial and hotel site. (photo Phil-Richards via wikimedia)

2002 – Toward the South of France

For a short summer period between 20 July and 7 September 2002, Eurostar ran direct services from London to Avignon every Saturday. The high-speed cross-Channel operator wanted to take advantage of Britain’s enthusiasm for Provence and increase the number of Britons attracted to the destination by 15-20%. This new route was based on figures from 2001, when almost 21,000 British people were acounted through Paris stations on their way to the south of France.

2004 – Ten years of Eurostar

Since Richard Brown took over as Chief Executive in August 2002, he has reshaped the management of Eurostar. A major restructuring, invisible but crucial for the company. In 2004, a single board of directors was created to manage Eurostar. “There is now just one management team. In practice, this makes a huge difference to an international strategy for the whole company. We can draw on our knowledge, experience and ideas centrally, and we can make decisions faster and do more at the same time,” Richard Brown told at Railway Gazette.

One of the problems that was resolved was the end of “maintenance nationalism”: all trainsets could be maintained in any depot, regardless of who actually owned them. Similarly, commercial policy was unified and coordinated. But the most important thing would come later: having a single view of Eurostar’s accounts…

The battle with aviation seemed to be slowly being won by the company. Over 10 years of operation, nearly 60 million passengers had been carried. On the eve of its 10th anniversary, according to CAA figures from August 2004, Eurostar had a market share of 68% on the London-Paris route and 63% on the London-Brussels route. At the time, the cross-Channel train carried more than 6.5 million passengers a year.

It was an undeniable commercial success, but the financial results were not yet up to scratch. According to Rail & Transport, SNCF lost €78 million at the time, SNCB €19 million and the then Eurostar UK reported a loss of €171 million. The total loss was therefore €268 million (or €381 million discounted to January 2024).

In September 2007, just before the full opening of the UK’s first HS1 high-speed line, a Eurostar train set a new speed record by running from Paris to London in 2 hrs 03 min 39 sec and from Brussels to London in 1 hr 43 min. On 6 November 2007, Queen Elizabeth II opened Saint Pancras International station. On the night of 13 to 14 November, Waterloo International station was permanently closed and the terminus was transferred to London St Pancras station, putting London 1 h 20 min from Lille, 1 h 50 min from Brussels and 2 h 15 min from Paris.

New station for TMST trainsets, seen at the magnificently renovated St Pancras terminus (photo Eurostar)

2010 – New company, new trains and increased traffic

2010 was the year in which the model was restructured. The three separate companies responsible for each territory (SNCF, SNCB and LCR) became a single entity, with a new strategy. Drawing lessons from the failure of the previous model, the new unified company, whose shares remained 55%, 5% and 40% respectively, paved the way for a series of ambitious projects in the fight against aviation, with the company continuing to learn positive lessons from its past mistakes.

On the cards: a renovation of the existing TMST Class 373 trains, as well as the purchase of a new series of trains offering 20% more seats over a length of 400m. This £700 million (€961 million at the time) investment programme was financed by a 15-year risk loan.

On 2 December 2010, Eurostar announced that it had signed a contract with Siemens to deliver 10 high-speed trains by 2014, an order worth €600 million at the time. The shockwaves and whiffs of patriotism quickly flew from Paris. The French authorities reacted by protesting against the result, arguing that the Siemens train, with its distributed motorisation, did not comply with the safety standards in force in the Channel Tunnel. This argument was quickly rejected.

Of course, this was just a show of protest, intended above all to bolster the discourse of industrial patriotism. However, as a single company under British law, London wanted to show that Eurostar was no longer “the sole plaything of the SNCF (and Alstom)” and that the operator had the freedom to choose its suppliers, despite “a case that had gone all the way up to the Élysée Palace” during the Sarkozy era. The order was ratified, putting an end to the controversy.

The new logo since 2011 (photo Eurostar)

Eurostar recorded its first operating profit as a standalone business in 2011 (£25 million), with revenue from its 9.7 million passengers topping £800 million, according to Eurostar. The following year, revenues more than doubled to £52.3 million, thanks to Eurostar’s sponsorship of the London Olympics. By 2013, sales were up 7% and operating profits up 4%. On 5 April 2011, Eurostar unveiled its second logo. It was designed by London agency SomeOne to revisit the Eurostar brand and symbolise a new momentum with the arrival of the new trains.

New Siemens e320 trainset in Ath, Belgium, 2013 (photo Mediarail.be)

New Siemens e320 UK trainsets
In the summer of 2013, the first Siemens trainsets began testing in preparation for delivery. Like the TGV TMST, the Eurostar e320 is a 395-metre long trainset, to ensure safe travel and rapid evacuation through the Channel Tunnel. This means that a trainset can open onto two connecting branches (every 375 m), although this is no longer compulsory.

The plans for the renovation of the 27 TMST trainsets (+1 in perpetual reserve) had also been changed: only 14 trainsets were to undergo renovation, with no indication of what would happen to the other 14.

Planned for 2014, the delivery of the Siemens trainsets was later than expected. The first trainsets did not enter service until the end of 2015. In the meantime, 7 new e320 trainsets were on order to replace 7 TMST trainsets that had become unavailable.

In the wake of its turnaround, Eurostar began to develop its network of destinations. There was every reason to be optimistic, since in 2014, on Eurostar’s 20th anniversary, the milestone of 10 million passengers was just passed. While this performance is to be applauded, astute observers behind the scenes saw a kind of line that could not be crossed if only the destinations of London, Paris and Brussels were taken into account, as the market was becoming mature. Going beyond these destinations was becoming a central project.

At one point, Geneva was considered, but the project was never pursued. In May 2015, a direct London-Marseille service was introduced, taking just over 6 hours. The aim was to make the south of France a more viable destination for short-haul business and leisure travel, bringing Britain closer to the Mediterranean.

On 23 June 2016, a referendum was held in Great Britain. 51.89% of British people, mainly from England and Wales, voted to leave the European Union. Scotland voted to remain. It was a political earthquake and yet another setback for Eurostar and transport in general.

2018 – Destination Amsterdam

The long-planned London-Amsterdam route, Europe’s second largest air route, became a reality when it was announced in February 2018 that it would operate two round trips from 4 April. However, the two Dutch stations served, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, did not have a secure platform or a control area for customs requirements, which had become very important following the decision to leave Europe.

While passengers travelled directly from London to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, on the return journey they were obliged to alight at Brussels-Midi where passport and security checks were carried out, making the journey less competitive. The governments of the two countries had undertaken to put this agreement in place by the end of 2019 so that Eurostar passengers could benefit from a direct service in both directions.

New destination for Eurostar, with Amsterdam-Centraal now added to the network (photo Albert Koch via flickr)

2019 – The Greenspeed project

On 27 September 2019, the respective boards of SNCF Mobilités, Eurostar, Thalys and SNCB were informed of a proposed merger between Eurostar and Thalys. Dubbed “Greenspeed”, the proposed merger between Thalys and Eurostar would, according to Les Echos, bring together two companies with a similar commercial approach (they both offer three passenger classes). They also have very similar service areas, which are even beginning to overlap. The result would be a company with sales of €1.6 billion (€1.1 billion for Thalys, €0.5 billion for Eurostar) and 19 million passengers carried (11.1 million on one side and 7.85 million on the other), according to 2019 figures.

This project still had to be approved by 6 Boards of Directors before it was completed. An external world event delayed the project…

2020 – Brexit and pandemic…

The year began on a negative note. On 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom left the European Union, but not its single market. The transition period ended on 31 December of the same year. The United Kingdom and the European Union were therefore bound by a trade and cooperation agreement from 1 January 2021.

But the saddest moment of the year came in mid-March: most European countries introduced drastic travel restrictions, grounding all planes and grounding buses and trains. Spring 2020 could be summed up in a single sentence: the big zero.

As a result of the health crisis, Eurostar lost almost 95% of its customers, and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The British government firmly refused to bail out a company that was nonetheless British, citing the fact that the shareholders were “foreign” and – what’s more – linked to national governments through SNCF and SNCB. In the end, the French government had to step in to bail out the company.

The collapse in demand forced Eurostar to announce the end of its Disneyland Paris service. The company, financially stretched, had to concentrate primarily on routes between London, Paris and Brussels, where demand was highest and journey times shortest. By 2021, it was operating five daily return trains between London and Paris and two to Brussels. It’s easy to understand the situation if you remember the traffic levels in 2011 and 2012…

Eurostar subsequently announced the resumption of direct London-Amsterdam trains on 26 October 2020. The seasonal service to Avignon and Marseille was suspended until 2022. From 1 October 2021, passengers travelling to the UK will be required to present a passport. Welcome to the new world…

The Kent without international train

This major restructuring since 2019 has had its victims, particularly in the UK. Stopped since 2020, the already meagre Ebbsfleet and Ashford services no longer appeared on the new group’s service map. “We can confirm that Eurostar services will not stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford International stations in 2023, and that we cannot make any commitments for two to three years,” explained Eurostar Group. In other words, there will be no salvation before 2026 for these stations, which in any case have been severely weakened by Brexit.

An e320 passing through Stratford on its way to the Continent in 2019 (photo Nicky-Boogaard via flickr)

2022 – Creation of Eurostar Group

The British refusal to bail out the company – as well as the fact that Brexit had become a reality – no doubt motivated the relaunch of the Green Speed project, this time in favour of the creation of a “non-British”, purely continental company. SNCF, which has a strong presence in the Benelux through Thalys, had little difficulty in imposing its views and repatriating the head office from London. On 1 May 2022, Eurostar Group, a company incorporated under Belgian law, was officially created with its head office in Brussels.

This holding company is owned by SNCF Voyageurs (55.75%), CDPQ (19.31%), SNCB (18.5%) and funds managed by Federated Hermes Infrastructure (6.44%). The company owns 100% of Eurostar International Limited (Eurostar) and THI Factory SA (Thalys).

In October 2022, Gwendoline Cazenave took up her position as CEO of Eurostar Group, succeeding Jacques Damas, CEO of Eurostar since October 2020 and CEO of the holding company Eurostar Group since its creation. The merger with Thalys was then definitively launched.

In October 2023, a new website, an application, a booking system and a single loyalty programme were launched. Eurostar’s goal is to have 30 million passengers by 2030, double the number in 2022, and at the same time to make up for the significant losses incurred by Brexit and Covid.

Eurostar also presented the third logo in its history. The rebranding was carried out by the Design Studio agency, with a new symbol combining the “e” in “Eurostar” and the star, reminiscent of a compass rose, symbolising discovery, infinite possibilities and directions.

The Thalys (left) and Eurostar (right) teams have now been brought together. A new chapter begins (photo Eurostar)
(photo Eurostar)

2024 – New future and new rolling stock

Eurostar reported that for 2023, Eurostar Group exceeded €2 billion revenue for the first time and achieved EBITDA of €423m. This success was due to a ramp up of operations from 2022 to 2023, and overall growth in passenger numbers reaching nearly 19 million. This strong performance in 2023 means Eurostar

This allowed Eurostat to look forward to a new future. The company targeted a growth to 30 million annual passengers Eurostar expects by 2030 and for future growth. In addition, There was also an urgent need to replace the PBA and PBKA trains of the old Thalys, all of which had been in service for 30 years.

This is why, in the spring 2024, the company announced an investment in 50 new high-speed trains. The new fleet will eventually operate alongside Eurostar’s current fleet of 17 e320s, providing a total fleet of up to 67 trains (a 30% increase compared to the 51 trains Eurostar operates today). While the detailed design elements are to be confirmed, the new trains will set the standards for customer experience and comfort. It aims for the first new trains to be in service from the early 2030s.

Both Eurostar customers and staff will be involved in the design process and all trains will be created in the most eco-friendly way. The new fleet will be required to have improved energy consumption versus the current fleet. 🟧

 


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