Eurostar has said it is facing an existential threat, as business leaders pleaded with the government to step in and save the “vital link” with Europe.
A 95% drop in passenger numbers has brought the cross-Channel train service to its knees, and the company reiterated on Sunday that while government loans had been extended to aviation, international high-speed rail had also been severely affected by the pandemic.
“Without additional funding from government, there is a real risk to the survival of Eurostar … the current situation is very serious,” it said in a statement.
Business leaders, including Brian Bickell, chief executive of the London landlord Shaftesbury, have written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, urging them to save the service. Their letter repeated the warning that Eurostar could run out of funds to operate the service in and out of London St Pancras.
The 28 executives said that, with the number of international tourists likely to remain low until at least the spring, the loss of the route would be a blow to the capital’s economy and the UK as a whole. Nearly four in every five passengers use the train to travel between London and Paris or Brussels.
Eurostar was “not asking for special treatment” they said, but access to the same help as companies in similar positions had received, such as business rates relief and loans.
“Safeguarding the future of this connection to the continent should be a symbol of both our desire to build back better and our new cooperative relationship with our European neighbours,” the letter continued, adding: “If this viable business is allowed to fall between the cracks of support – our recovery could be damaged.”
Eurostar is majority-owned by the French state railway, SNCF, but is thought to have exhausted options for governmental assistance from Paris. The franchised UK train operators that have been bailed out under emergency agreements since the coronavirus pandemic began – at a cost of £8bn this financial year – are also largely owned or co-owned by foreign state rail operators.
In 2019, Eurostar carried 11 million passengers and was preparing to expand services with the introduction of direct trains to Amsterdam. It employs 1,200 people in the UK, with a further 1,500 jobs supported by its supply chain.