International Rail Services: Kent

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 25 October 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford 6:31, 25 October 2023

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.