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Channel Tunnel: 30 years of failing to deliver transcontinental connectivity

Simon Calder’s Travel

Thirty years ago Queen Elizabeth II and French president Francois Mitterand officially opened the Channel Tunnel between Folkestone in Kent and Calais in northern France.

So how much has the link transformed travel? Unfortunately, it’s been a tale of broken promises so far in terms of direct services between the UK and Continental Europe.

The problem for proponents of terrestrial transport is that there has been a revolution in travel over the past 30 years, but it’s been the transformation of aviation.

Eurotunnel is the company that owns the infrastructure and runs LeShuttle car- and coach-carrying service from Folkestone to Calais. It takes about 20 million people a year through the tunnel in these vehicles, as well as on Eurostar trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Yet that is a tiny proportion of the number of people who fly to and from the UK.

The only prospect of making good on proper trans-continental connectivity from the UK: cutting costs and opening up to new budget operators.

What was the original plan?

When Eurostar was first envisaged the idea was to have trains from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Plymouth direct to Paris and Brussels.

One third of a billion pounds was sunk into improving infrastructure and buying the trains. For years a depot outside Manchester Piccadilly stood empty, even though it had a sign reading “Le Eurostar habite ici” – Eurostar lives here.

The Regional Eurostar rolling stock was built, but not a single train ever ran to Europe from anywhere other than London.

Even on the routes from the capital, the number of destinations has shrunk in recent years. While Rotterdam and Amsterdam have been added, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Disneyland Paris have been taken away – and the two stations in Kent remain closed with no plans to reopen them.

What’s the problem?

Budget aviation is very cheap (I have just paid £15 to fly from Manchester to Vienna) and the charges for running passenger trains through the Channel Tunnel are very expensive. The fare on Ryanair wouldn’t even meet the payment that train firms have to make to Eurotunnel for less than half-an-hour in the Channel Tunnel.

The company earns around £17 for each passenger on every Eurostar train, as well as a small additional amount to cover the cost of electricity.

For a rail…

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