New direct high-speed train routes from London to Cologne, Frankfurt, Geneva and Zurich could be up and running within five years, according to the Eurotunnel owner, Getlink, after work to double the capacity of UK rail links to Europe.
While the Channel tunnel, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in May 2024, has struggled to extend its passenger offerings beyond Eurostar’s original London to Paris and Brussels services, Getlink said new entrants and destinations could now arrive swiftly.
Two potential operators, the Spanish rail firm Evolyn and the Dutch train startup Heuro, have publicly declared their interest in rivalling Eurostar.
Yann Leriche, the chief executive of Getlink, said he had been in conversation with at least two other players about starting competing operations through the tunnel.
Speaking at an event at the French entrance to the tunnel in Coquelles, Leriche said rail could eventually expect to take 30-40% of the airline traffic on the shorter German and Swiss routes from London, journeys of five to six hours by train.
While operators have tried and failed in the past to open new routes, with even the eventual opening of the third-linked capital, Amsterdam, hampered by capacity constraints, Leriche said: “What we see is that suddenly with the work that we have done, we have an appetite and demand from new entrants like never in the past – and only two of them went public. So there is the race.”
He said he believed greater competition and more trains would eventually lower fares.
Getlink also hopes to run more freight services. Leriche urged the UK government to divert a fraction of its savings from scrapping HS2 north of Birmingham to enable a key route to carry standard international containers. He said a £50m upgrade of the Folkestone-Wembley line would allow far more freight trains to run, with only a tenth of the original forecast volumes now coming through the tunnel. He added: “We will reduce road congestion in Kent, improve resilience, reinforce logistics chains. It should be top of the list” [for Britain].
Getlink is the owner of Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel rail infrastructure as well as Le Shuttle for road users, taking passenger and freight vehicles between Folkestone and Calais. Eurostar, a separate company now majority owned by SNCF, has so far been the only operator of passenger trains using the tunnel.
Getlink is investing €78m (£67m) in new border booths before the expected introduction of the EU entry-exit system in October 2024 that will require UK nationals to register biometric details when first entering the rest of Europe. The new infrastructure will help avoid delays, Leriche said, although it is expected to take six to seven minutes a carload of passengers to be processed.
Meanwhile, Leriche hit out at “social dumping” by competitors on the Channel crossing. He said P&O Ferries and Irish Ferries were effectively paying agency workers from overseas about 60% below the minimum once social benefits and leave were taken into account, on far longer stays at sea than unions previously allowed. Leriche said: “Compared with what they earn in Madagascar it is a very good wage, but do we do that in other industries in Europe?”