Eurostar has appealed to the UK government for urgent financial support, warning it is “fighting for survival” with just one train a day now running from London to Paris.
Passenger numbers on the cross-Channel train service have been down 95% since March but are currently believed to be less than 1% of pre-Covid levels under travel restrictions that will last into at least December.
The Eurostar chief executive, Mike Cooper, has written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, asking for assistance after the Treasury announced it would help struggling airports with up to £8m each, based on their equivalent business rates.
Eurostar hopes to receive similar assistance, as well as a review of track access charges it pays to use the UK’s only stretch of high-speed rail line, owned on a concession by HS1 Ltd.
A spokesman said: “The new scheme of rates relief for airports puts Eurostar at a direct disadvantage against its airline competitors. Eurostar has been left fighting for its survival against a 95% drop in demand, whilst aviation has received over £1.8bn in support through loans, tax deferrals and financing.
“We would ask this scheme to be extended to include international rail services, and more generally for the government to incorporate high-speed rail in its support for the travel sector, and in doing so help protect the green gateway to Europe.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said ministers recognised the significant financial challenges facing Eurostar, adding: “The government has been engaging extensively with Eurostar on a regular basis since the beginning of the outbreak. We will continue to work closely with them as we support the safe recovery of international travel.”
Eurostar carried 11 million passengers last year and was planning to expand services with the introduction of direct trains to Amsterdam.
However, it is currently operating just four services in total daily, with a return Brussels service as well as Paris. Because of social distancing requirements, each train’s maximum capacity has been halved but many tickets have remained unsold.
Eurostar is majority owned by the French state railway, SNCF, but is believed to have exhausted options for governmental assistance from Paris. Franchised UK train operators bailed out under emergency agreements since the coronavirus pandemic – at a cost of £8bn this financial year – are also largely owned or co-owned by foreign state rail operators.
The RMT rail union said Eurostar was “staring into the abyss” and urged the government to step in. Its general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “It is wholly wrong that Eurostar, an eco-friendly service that is a beacon for the future of our railways, is being denied the kind of financial support being offered to the airports.”
Cooper told Sunak the firm backed all measures to restart international travel, but contrasted the treatment of the sole international rail link with the aviation sector – not least given the comparative environmental costs of rail, at a time when the government has talked up its green ambitions. Eurostar says its emissions are almost 90% lower than equivalent flights.
Its UK terminus, London St Pancras, part of HS1’s concession, passes on costs to operators in the same way as airports, Eurostar argues, but has not shared in the same emergency funding.