I am grateful for the chance to bring to the House an issue that is of huge importance not just to my constituents in Ashford, but to many people across the whole county of Kent, and indeed beyond: the withdrawal of the international services, which used to stop at Ashford and Ebbsfleet, but which were stopped when the pandemic meant the temporary end of international travel, and which have not subsequently been restored by Eurostar.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the successful history of the service, which has been running from Ashford since 1996. It has contributed significantly to economic growth in the area, taking advantage of the geographical proximity to the European mainland to drive economic development, and particularly inward investment. It also, of course, provided a large new leisure market, with people from across Kent having easy access to Disneyland Paris and, at other times of the year, quick journeys to the ski slopes. There is demonstrably huge potential for the Kent stations.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the international trains running from Ashford enhance connectivity, boost tourism, stimulate economic growth, promote cultural exchange and have environmental benefits for the coastal towns across Kent and east Sussex, including beautiful Hastings and Rye?
My hon. Friend is completely right. As she will have heard, I made the point that this is of great interest to people not just across Kent but beyond. Certainly, she is a great champion for Hastings, and I agree that the effects of high-speed rail, in this case international rail, can spread prosperity and the opportunities that travel can bring far and wide from the station.
My right hon. Friend makes the case very well about the opportunities for people in Sussex and the coastal towns, but does he agree that that also applies to people in the north of Kent and the south-east London area, as it is still much quicker for them to access Ashford International for those journeys?
Absolutely. I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point, because of course travelling into central London for St Pancras is often a real pain for people from the outskirts of London, and certainly for those from the more rural parts of Kent. Access to Ashford, where it is easy to drive, and to get there by train—and it is well connected—makes it much easier to intersect with the international services. I am glad to have his constituents added to mine, and those of other colleagues across Kent, as people who wish for Eurostar to restore the service.
We have been through a minor version of the current impasse before. There was a time in 2007 when Eurostar withdrew the Brussels service from Ashford. A campaign over several years, which I was involved with alongside Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council, and with the sympathetic support of Ministers in the Government at that time, succeeded in persuading Eurostar that a business-based service allowing a sensibly timed journey from Ashford to Brussels in the morning and back in the evening was viable. That proved so successful that in 2015 a weekend Brussels service was added, as well as a new service to the south of France.
I obviously accept that Eurostar is a private company and makes its own commercial decisions, but the UK Government have a legitimate and important role in influencing those decisions, not least in the specific case of Ashford station. In 2016 Eurostar introduced new rolling stock that demanded a whole new signalling system at Ashford station to allow the new trains to stop there. That was funded at a cost of £8.5 million through the local growth fund. In other words, that was the UK taxpayer spending specifically so that Eurostar could continue to service Ashford. So far the return on that for the taxpayer has been exactly zero. By a terrible irony of timing, the work was completed at exactly the same time as the pandemic struck in the early months of 2020 and international services were suspended, so no train has ever taken advantage of that spending.
I appreciate that £8.5 million does not seem much in the context of the quantum of money that may not have been entirely prudently spent in recent years on the railways, but the point is that this is not a wasteful investment; it is a good investment that, if utilised, would provide services that passengers want, and make better use of the existing railway infrastructure. Having spent that taxpayers’ money, it is the Government’s responsibility to see that it was well spent. I therefore hope and assume that the Minister will back my call for the Kent services to be resumed.
Eurostar’s current position has evolved—not in a helpful direction. In September 2020 it said that no Kent services would stop before 2022. In 2021 it said no services until 2023. In 2022 it said no services until 2025. My hon. Friend Gareth Johnson and I have met Eurostar’s representatives, and I have met them on a number of occasions with the relevant local authorities. In every one of those meetings I would describe them as perfectly polite but completely obdurate.
Eurostar is of course a commercial company whose contract is not determined by the same kind of franchise or concession model that national services have. Its majority ownership is the French nationalised rail company SNCF, with a small stake for the Belgian state rail company and the other 40% owned by private sector companies. Eurostar has now merged with the Thalys group, and it is undoubtedly true that the pandemic dealt it a very severe financial blow. To survive that blow it took on large amounts of commercial debt that it has to repay. It says that it still has the long-term ambition to grow its services, but that for a variety of reasons it cannot do so at the moment.
There are, however, two reasons that make today’s discussion particularly timely, because that low, difficult period identified by Eurostar is coming to an end. The first reason is revealed in its own press release last June about its latest financial results. It says:
“We have turned the page on the Covid crisis and are now moving towards a new chapter of building the new Eurostar group”.
Its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation—EBITDA in the jargon—were a record €332 million. Clearly it is now generating cash because it repaid €127 million of the debt that it incurred during the pandemic. It is now evidently in a position to expand if it wanted to.
The second reason it is timely to be having this discussion in public is the imminent arrival of a competitor to Eurostar in providing international services to the UK; the Evolyn consortium says that it has a billion-pound project to buy an initial 12 trains from Alstom and intends to start services in 2025. At the moment, it, like Eurostar, is planning only capital city services, but the advent of competition means that both companies will have to seek advantages, and the free offer of stations that are already built and raring to go is a potentially great advantage to either of them if they have the gumption to take it.
Obviously, as we have heard in discussions with Eurostar for a long time, stations are useful only if there are passengers who want to use them, and we know that there are. I have heard the argument that anyone in Kent who wants to travel to the continent will travel to St Pancras and start there. However, as we have heard in this debate, that argument does not wash with many people. Apart from the nonsense of having someone catch a fast train to travel 60 miles north-west so that they can get on another fast train that travels south-east under the channel, we have to consider the expense of having to do that. At the margin, some people will be discouraged from that. We know how strong this feeling is because my constituents have organised a petition along the lines of what I am saying this evening. In just a few weeks, more than 36,000 people have signed it and many more are doing so every day. There are clearly tens of thousands of people in Kent, and many thousands more beyond Kent, who would prefer to travel from their local stations, and I think it is incumbent on all of us to make that happen as soon as possible.
In the light of that, I want to ask the Minister a number of specific questions, the first of which is an overarching one: given that Eurostar profits are returning and the Government have put taxpayers’ money into the Ashford signalling so that Ashford services can return to 2016 levels, what are the Government doing to support the return of services to the Kent stations? The second relates to an environmental point. There are many studies showing that international rail travel is more sustainable than air travel. Eurostar itself claims that the carbon footprint of one flight is the equivalent of that of 13 Eurostar journeys. As the Government are looking for ways to meet their welcome net zero target by 2050, what are they doing to expand the use of international rail as a more sustainable form of transport, especially as we know that there is significant capacity available, both on the line and on the train paths through the tunnel? There is no capacity constraint in this part of the rail network, so it would be good to use it as much as possible, for the good of the environment.
Is it not also the case that much of the electricity used on these trains comes from French nuclear power and so is some of the greenest power available?
Yes, indeed. The rail network in our part of the world has been good at using the power that comes from the interconnector. My right hon. Friend is right to say that that adds to the greenness of the travel and, in particular, the comparative advantage of international rail travel over international air travel.
My third question is about the new customs arrangements that the EU has devised—and then delayed. I note that the French Government have so much confidence in these arrangements that they have insisted they should not be implemented before the Paris Olympics next summer, but we must expect that the new EES—entry/exit system—will eventually arrive, and Eurostar has argued that the need for more checks, and therefore more staff, is one reason why it cannot yet contemplate reopening Ashford station. So what are the Government doing to make sure that the EES system will not penalise rail travellers?
My fourth question is about the potential new entrant to the market. I appreciate that the proposal is in its early stages, but I assume that if it progresses, the UK Government will need to give some authorisation for it to proceed, and that therefore the Government will need to be in detailed talks with the operator long before any service starts running. Will the Minister agree, in those talks, to put the case for the Kent stations, not least as a way of making the new operation more viable?
My fifth and final question is about the wider issue of cross-channel traffic, which the Minister knows is not only a huge economic positive for east Kent but, far too often, a huge social negative, as blockages at the port of Dover or at the tunnel lead to motorway issues and, at their worst, the gradual coagulation of traffic flows through surprisingly large parts of Kent, some of them quite a long way from the coast. Does the Minister agree that getting more passengers on the train will help to relieve pressure at busy periods on car traffic through the port of Dover and Eurotunnel?
As a final thought, I of course appreciate that not all the levers for the decision are in the Minister’s hands, but I know that my constituents, and many others around Kent and the wider south-east, would appreciate knowing that central Government are on their side in the crusade to bring back the international rail services to Kent.
I thank my right hon. Friend Damian Green for securing the debate on this important issue, which is very close to my heart; I am a constituency neighbour to my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, who made an intervention, and my right hon. Friend is of course just across the border from me in Kent.
My right hon. Friend has worked tirelessly in campaigning on this matter on behalf of the people of Ashford and the wider Kent area, and I salute him for his work. As I mentioned, as the Member for a constituency that is not too far away from his, I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that Ebbsfleet and Ashford stations do not currently receive international services. I fully recognise the important benefits that high-speed international rail services provide for the areas and communities they serve, including for people and businesses in Kent and its surrounds. I should state that I was a frequent user of the service, having come across the coastline from East Sussex to Kent, and I would like to be able to do that again.
Some 18 months ago, my right hon. Friend Damian Green and I met the chief executive of Eurostar, and to say that it was frustrating is an understatement. It is frankly madness that we have international stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford but people cannot travel from them internationally. Will my hon. Friend the Minister do all he can, through his Department, to ensure that international services are restored both at Ashford and at Ebbsfleet in my constituency?
I can provide my hon. Friend with that assurance. I have a real passion for this subject and am particularly keen to see those international stations become international stations again. I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford for his work on Ashford station, and I praise my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson for his work on behalf of his constituents for the return of Ebbsfleet station. Both Members work incredibly hard and I am keen to see that work rewarded.
High-speed international rail services provide major benefits in terms of the connections they provide and the fact that they are environmentally friendly links to our European neighbours, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. Let me give some context. Before the pandemic, Eurostar was carrying record passenger numbers, with more than 11 million passengers per year, and held a market share of around 80% of journeys between London and each of Paris and Brussels. Given the significant benefits, and recognising that rail is currently a significantly lower-carbon option compared with other modes of transport for international travel, with emissions as much as 80% lower on some routes compared with air equivalents, it is in our interest to ensure the long-term sustainability of the services.
Unfortunately, as we know, the travel industry was severely impacted by covid-19, facing unprecedented challenges, and the sector continues to manage and respond to the impacts of that today. Eurostar passenger numbers collapsed to 5% of 2019 levels for much of the pandemic, and revenue was cut by around 95% for 15 months in 2020-2021. Eurostar therefore made difficult decisions to cut services and consolidate its service offer. That was an entirely commercial decision taken by the operator. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford noted, Eurostar is a non-franchised operator, so it does not receive UK Government subsidies.
During the pandemic, the Government worked very closely with Eurostar—as we did with the travel industry more broadly—to support it in accessing the cross-economy support schemes for which it was eligible. Indeed, I recall that the Transport Committee—when I was wearing my previous hat—leaned strongly into that particular issue and did its best to ensure that Eurostar had that support. That is why I am now looking for Eurostar’s support in return, as I wear a different hat.
The Department engaged extensively with Eurostar throughout that period to consider the specific challenges facing the company, but the company ultimately secured financing on commercial terms from its lenders and shareholders. I, too, am very disappointed to see that, despite a strong recovery in demand for travel, Eurostar is yet to reinstate services from Ebbsfleet and Ashford. Since I became rail Minister, I have personally raised that with Eurostar, making it absolutely clear that I am keen to see those services return as soon as it is possible and commercially viable for the company to do so. I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are some good arguments for why that commercial rationale exists. However, I recognise that it is an entirely commercial decision for Eurostar, given that international services operate on a solely commercial basis.
My right hon. Friend raised the entry and exit system. I recognise that there are challenges at the border, as he noted. The Home Office is the lead Department on that, but my Department is supporting engagement with our European partners and portals, including Eurostar, to help reduce the impacts as much as possible. Indeed, that is another matter that I recall the Transport Committee raising as one of concern with certain dates looming—my right hon. Friend noted that they have been moved. I will certainly make the case for Kent stations when we have those discussions with our European partners, as he asks of me.
I note my right hon. Friend’s important point concerning the financial contribution from taxpayers and local partners to ensure that Eurostar’s newest trains could serve the station. I recognise his disappointment given the years of work to enhance the station and the unfortunate timing in the light of the pandemic. I back his call for that investment to deliver a return for UK taxpayers. However, thanks to that investment, Ashford remains well placed to accommodate any modern high-speed train that may be used by Eurostar, or any new entrant seeking to compete with Eurostar, in future. On that note, it is important to highlight the prospect of greater competition to Eurostar in the future, which could be beneficial for passengers in Kent, depending on commercial decisions taken by any new entrant. As my right hon. Friend made clear, at least one potential competitor has publicised its ambitions to launch services to directly compete with Eurostar in the coming years.
I have been clear that competition on the railways can deliver real benefits for passengers by providing greater choice and lower prices. It would also be an important step in improving the prospects of services returning to Kent stations. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is capacity on that line. I would dearly love to see another operator bringing competition and stopping at those Kent stations. Department officials are engaging regularly with infrastructure managers and European partners to discuss the potential for new services and routes, particularly to address the unique requirements of operating through the channel tunnel. They also stand ready to work with and support potential new entrants through those challenges. Indeed, just today, I was talking about open access and what we can do to bring more competitors on. I will ensure that that is not just domestic: if I have my way, it will be international as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford again for raising this important matter in the House. I also recognise the contributions and work of the other Members who have spoken: my hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) and for Hastings and Rye, and my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and all those who have spoken, I am keen to see international services return to Kent as soon as possible and when it is commercially viable. My officials and I will work tirelessly on this matter, and will continue to press for this change in my dealings with our industry partners.
Question put and agreed to.