Who Takes the Eurostar? Almost No One, as the Pandemic Fuels a Rail Crisis

PARIS — Earlier this month, David-Alexander Leduc rolled his suitcase down a nearly empty platform at the Gare du Nord train station and scanned his ticket at the turnstile to board the sole Eurostar leaving that day for London.

Mr. Leduc used to shuttle regularly for business on one of at least 17 high-speed Eurostar trains that ran back and forth daily, morning to night, through the underwater Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France.

He was lucky there was a train to take.

“It’s constraining,” said Mr. Leduc, who lives in London and has cut back hopping over to France to meet clients as a plunge in ridership from national quarantines forces Eurostar to slash services. “But you have to adapt.”

On Monday, a bad year for Eurostar suddenly turned worse. All service from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam was suspended for at least 48 hours, as governments on the continent banned travelers from Britain, a precaution as health officials try to control a new variant of coronavirus sweeping across parts of England. Trains will continue operating from Paris to London, the company said.

Eurostar, the sleek and speedy mode of travel that ties London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and other cities, is a shadow of itself, crippled by the pandemic. Its ridership has all but vanished, and its finances are threatened. More than 90 percent of its employees have been furloughed, one of its union said.

Its woes reflect a struggle for survival playing out across the European train industry, as the pandemic continues to upend the business of transportation. Like Europe’s airlines, the railway sector is facing its worst crisis in modern history.

State railways are getting billions in support. SNCF, which faces losses of up to €5 billion, with only a fraction of its high-speed TGV trains currently running, received a €4 billion capital injection from the French government on Tuesday. DeutscheBahn’s expected losses of €5.6 billion this year will be offset by up to €4 billion in rail support from the German government.

Privately held operators that rely on shareholders and customer receipts face higher hurdles. Start-up low-cost train companies, including Flixtrain in Germany, have cut service and face financial strain. Leo Express, a competitor in the Czech Republic, filed for bankruptcy in October.

Eurostar is the biggest and most well known of the bunch. Owned by a consortium including SNCF, which holds a 55 percent stake, as well as investment firms and the National Railway Company of Belgium, it was already bracing for a potential hit to business from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which officially takes effect on Jan. 1.

Pandemic restrictions have dealt it a swifter blow. After record profit in 2019, when 11 million people crowded onto its trains, Eurostar said it was now “fighting for its survival” after a “total collapse in demand” for international rail travel.

Passenger numbers have plunged 95 percent since March. Revenue fell by €340 million in the first half, down 61 percent from a year ago. From a peak of running more than 60 trains a day, Eurostar cut service to one daily round-trip between London and Paris, and one on its London-Brussels and Amsterdam routes.

Until this week, Eurostar was temporarily adding more daily trains ahead of the Christmas holidays. with plans to return to a reduced schedule in January.

As the industry maps out a post-pandemic recovery, analysts say it will need to inspire new loyalty in riders, in part by promoting trains as an ecological way to travel as Europe moves toward a greener future.

Companies are also reviewing pricing models that worked fine when business executives and selfie-taking tourists swarmed to Europe’s capitals, but are less viable as a pandemic-induced recession cuts into consumers’s spending power.

With fewer trains, ticket prices have been climbing to sometimes astronomical levels that have sent even environmentally conscious commuters searching for airplane flights that are up to 75 percent cheaper.

Mr. Leduc, an industrial consultant for British and French start-ups, paid about 400 euros (about $485) for his round-trip ticket, about double the normal fare. He said he paid it because the trip was for business. But as he plans holiday travel back to France with his wife and daughter, he is mulling whether to take easyJet, a discount airline, after realizing that train tickets for his family could cost nearly €1,000.

“If Eurostar prices stay in the stratosphere, I won’t hesitate to start taking the plane, even if it’s more tiring, longer and more polluting,” he said.

Even when quarantines are lifted, people may not use trains as frequently, including lucrative business travelers who thought nothing of hopping on the Eurostar to Paris for a meeting, then returning to dine in Soho that evening. Some riders will have ditched the train for cars. In metropolitan areas, commuters may turn increasingly to bicycles for short-distance travel.

Still, the pandemic is unlikely to wipe out Europe’s love affair with trains. People will probably gravitate back to their old mobility behavior as the pandemic fades, said Ms. Leenen of SCI Verkehr.

“But the trains will just be a little less full,” she said.

Antonella Francini contributed reporting from Paris.

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