Eurostar’s privileged position as sole operator of high-speed cross-Channel passenger trains is under threat for the second time in as many months.
Rivals for passengers’ hearts
Last month saw an announcement by Evolyn, a rail start-up with mystery backers, that they are purchasing 12 to 16 Alstom-manufactured trains and expect to start a London-Paris service as early as 2025. Alstom are the makers of France’s iconic TGVs.
Now though, according to The Telegraph, another new rival has declared their intention to win customers on routes from the UK to continental Europe, and it’s someone with form in the rail sector: Virgin Group’s Richard Branson.
Virgin’s rail arm, launched in 1997, has been out of action since it ceased franchise operations in the UK in 2019. It lost its franchise due to a tendering error and did not compete the decision. But now an unnamed source has told The Telegraph the group is looking to re-enter the market serving routes to London from Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
If reports are accurate, the company’s former Chief Phil Whittingham, who served as Managing Director of Avanti West Coast trains until last year, has been invited to lead the new project.
Virgin is being coy and has not confirmed or denied the news, telling press: “Virgin doesn’t comment on rumour or speculation.”
Will Eurostar up its game?
Virgin, or indeed any trans-Channel train company, could in theory serve cross-Channel passengers since Getlink, the Channel tunnel operator, is run on a so-called “open-access” basis, guaranteeing an equal right of access to any rail operator travelling between British and European networks.
The development of more operators on territory thought of as Eurostar’s is likely to be welcomed by passengers, who have had to put up with reduced timetables from the company since the Covid-19 pandemic. Its trains no longer stop at Ashford or Ebbsfleet stations in the south of England – a move that infuriated businesses and trans-European commuters who had based themselves there. Other bugbears include an unreliable onboard WiFi experience and hit-and-miss catering, which often seems to run low on supplies.
Eurostar recently joined forces with Thalys, meaning one network of high-speed and indirect routes now connects France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and the UK. This has been touted as a positive, combining Eurostar’s business-customer focus, with Thalys’s expertise in onboard WiFi and in sustainable travel. But with competitors now chomping at its heels, will the new Thalys-influenced era of Eurostar be enough to win back the hearts or retain the loyalty of customers disappointed by its services?