International Rail Services: Kent

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 25 October 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 6:46, 25 October 2023

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.

House adjourned.