Published: 14th November 2014
Rail.co.uk’s editor Phil Marsh ran the Railtrack part of the Eurostar operating contract from 1996 for several years. This is the inside an informed alternative story of the 20th anniversary of public services commencing.
The UK’s only true high speed train service celebrated its 20th anniversary on November 14 but plans to run fast international trains go back to July 1966 when Harold Wilson announced that an Anglo-French agreement had been reached following the results of two surveys.
But it all started 30 years earlier when a geological study was undertaken in 1995 which showed that construction of the Channel Tunnel (CT) would be easier than initially thought, and that the economic potential was greater than first estimated. Construction was planned to start in 1969 with trains running by 1974 and the project would cost £200m.
Trains were to operate between stations on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) via Kensington Olympia and then onto the southern and to the CT. One of the studies took place concerning the three mile long Standedge tunnel between Leeds and Manchester to study air pressure data to assist with the design of rolling stock. The tunnel air vents were closed and a class 47 diesel hauled a nine coach train and the experiment was assisted by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough.
Not much happened until British Rail (BR) published a report in 1973 which suggested that 160mph trains should link London and Paris in 3hrs 40 minutes and Brussels in 15 minutes less. The CT was expected to open in 1980 with motorail and sleeper services operating in addition to high speed day trains.
Work commenced in 1974 but ceased a year later due to the oil crisis but in 1978 BR and French Railways (SNCF) again started planning but this time for a single track tunnel. Plans were presented to the respective Governments in 1981 and quickly changed to a twin bore Channel Tunnel. Economic reports indicated favourable prospects of private financing being available for the works.
The actual legislation that paved the way for trains to run was enacted on 23rd July 1987 when The Channel Tunnel Act was passed imposing a duty on British Rail’s European Passenger Services (EPS) department to plan the operation of international train services who placed the Eurostar train building contract in late 1991.
The 18 trains operated by BR were transferred to the London and Continental Railways (L&CR) consortium in 1996. L&CR comprised of Bechtel and S G Warburg with 18% each, Virgin and National Express at 17% each with Systra and London Electricity holding 14% and 12% respectively. Eurostar debt of about £1.3bn was also written off by the Government to entice bidders.
1st April 1996 was the date set for the takeover of EPS by L&CR and on 1st October 1996 EPS was renamed Eurostar (UK) Ltd (EUKL). The Government-brokered deal to operate the trains and to build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), now HS1, was won by L&CR also included the railway owned property surrounding and including St Pancras and Stratford plus £1.4bn cash to build the CTRL, then estimated at £3bn. The difference was to be generated by the L&CR consortium from fares, trading and property revenues.
The 1988 BR report suggested that 12 million passengers a year would use Eurostar services by 1993 and by 2003, this would rise to 21 million including the five daily regional trains. But, remember, there were no budget airlines then to compete with long distance rail.
By the time Eurostar trains started operations, the low cost budget airlines were in business and badly hit the Eurostar passenger projections of 15 million a year. Eurostar passenger carrying services commenced on 14 November 1994 with what was called ‘Discovery’ services with five trains a day in each direction.
The service gradually increased but in 1998 L&CR announced they could not fund the CTRL construction and the Government brought Railtrack in to take over the project in exchange for a reduction in their debt of £500 million. Railtrack was also given £10 million a year in Track Access Charges payable by L&CR until the CTRL opened.
This was to recoup Railtrack’s £155m investment reconfiguring the network to allow Eurostar trains to run. The actual trains could carry 760 passengers on the Class 373/1 ‘Intercapital’ trains and the Regional Class 373/2 trains had 560 seats.
The failure of L&CR delayed the construction of HS1 by probably five years but which was eventually built in two sections and opened in November 2007.
Regional services started with ‘link services’ running to platform 19 at Waterloo from Glasgow and Manchester offering easy connections with the Intercaptial services running from Waterloo International. These could only be used by passengers travelling to Europe so ran almost empty every day and these trains ceased in January 1996. Trains also ran from Penzance and Swansea for a short while.
The same month saw Ashford International opening costing £100m funded equally between Laing and Railtrack.
The real regional day services’ introduction slipped from 1996, to 1997 and were finally cancelled in 1998 after the budget airlines attracted passengers away from trains and the business case vanished. Passenger numbers peaked at 7 million in 2001, a third of the anticipated demand back in 1988 but 10 million passengers were carried last year.
A new Customs building was built at Kensington Olympia for Eurostar trains and it was also intended that security scanners would be loaded and unloaded here along with catering supplies and crew changes were also to be made there.
Four of the regional Eurostars were used by GNER from July 1999 operating between Kings Cross, Leeds and York. Several train companies announced they were looking at running cross-London Eurostar services. For example, in 1998 Virgin planned services between Watford Junction and Pairs aimed at connecting with the M25 and airports at Heathrow and Luton. GNER looked at operating from Leeds or York to Lille (for onward high speed rail connections across Europe) in 2002. Operational and political issues in France prevented these trains running as a GNER liveried train service in France was not deemed acceptable.
Then the Government instructed Railtrack and Eurostar to look at serving Heathrow with an international train service as part of the L&CR rescue deal to free up slots at the airport. A test run took place overnight on 10th October 1998 when a Regional Eurostar visited Heathrow’s Central Terminal Area. The train carried polystyrene blocks on the outside to check gauge clearances but most was knocked off by Budlia on the lineside!
Since November 2007 when HS1 reached St. Pancras, Eurostar has gone from strength to strength and has captured around 85% of the travel market between London, Paris and Brussels.
The rest is history!