Basel, Switzerland. The latest city for which a direct train to London has been proposed.
There are a slew of reasons for this that I will explain here. None of the problems are insurmountable, but in combination they make any expansion of services through the Channel Tunnel beyond the current London-Paris and London-Bruxelles-Amsterdam routes highly unlikely.
Reason 1: Passport controls
The UK demands that passport controls happen before a passenger boards a UK bound train. This means stationing passport controllers at the stations where passengers board (so services have to be regular – ideally many per day), and cordoning off a platform for the already-checked passengers. The alternative – as was done for UK-bound trains from Marseille and Lyon – was to get all passengers to disembark for a passport control (it used to take 55 minutes!) – this might be acceptable for an irregular tourist-oriented service, but is not acceptable for a business orientated service.
On the passport check point at least on this point Basel and Geneva do not immediately fall down as the SNCF platforms at each station can easily be cordoned off. Frankfurt would be possible, but Köln and Lyon Part-Dieu are overcrowded and so would present major headaches.
Until now the UK has straight up refused the idea to conduct passport checks on board a moving train, and also refuses passport controls upon arrival. Under the current government this is not going to change.
Reason 2: Bag scans
All luggage has to be scanned before passengers board passenger trains through the Channel Tunnel. This can normally be done at the same time as a passport control, and can also be done by locally contracted staff – so poses less of a hurdle than passport controls. But in crowded stations such as Köln or Lyon Part-Dieu can still post a problem.
Reason 3: Terminal capacity in the UK, and Brexit constraints
Eurostar capacity at London St Pancras is currently down a third due to Brexit-imposed constraints – basically the number of passengers each hour that can be processed is lower now than it used to be because of the extra exit controls required to enter the Schengen zone from a non-EU country. Adding extra services from other cities would somehow have to overcome this issue.
There are two possible solutions here – streamlining access to the EU for UK citizens, and adding capacity at other UK terminals instead.
Streamlining access might be something a future Labour government would do, but for the next couple of years the current government is not going to do it.
Extra capacity is complex. The track layout at Stratford International means starting and ending trains there is impossible, but picking up passengers there would work – if passport and security controls were built there (there is space for them, but they were never completed, as Eurostar never ran there). Likewise passengers boarding at Ebbsfleet and Ashford could be examined to decrease the burden on St Pancras.
Using Waterloo – the former terminal – is out of the question as that terminal has been re-purposed for commuter trains.
It is also notable that Eurostar currently has a policy to only focus on St Pancras, so as to re-built its financial position post COVID. The decision to do this is uniquely financial – there is no technical reason to no longer stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford. Some possible future operator could see this differently.
Reason 4: Rolling stock
At present only Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn own rolling stock approved to run through the Channel Tunnel, but in DB’s case it is the unreliable and small ICE 406 series – so basically forget using those. That leaves you with Eurostar e300 (Eurostar owns 11 operable ones) and e320 trains (Eurostar has 17 of these), short term.
Neither e300 nor e320 is approved for the 15kV electrification in Germany (although there is passive provision for this in a e320), but Basel and Geneva can be reached with French 25kV. e300 can run in pretty much all of France, and to Brussels. e320 can also run in Netherlands and could run in the rest of Belgium (e.g. to Liège).
But a major constraint here is the total number of trains – there are just 28 available – and their comparative inflexibility. Both are 400m long trains, with 758 seats in a e300 and 902 seats in a e320. Would it even be possible to fill such a train from – say – Basel or Bordeaux?
This then poses a further headache – in combination with Reason 1 above. If there were not enough demand at – say – Basel alone, what about stopping at Strasbourg or Charles de Gaulle Airport en route to London? It would make operational sense… but then you have the passport and bag scan problem in even more stations!
Theoretically this problem could be alleviated medium term with new rolling stock. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE3neo (that, like a e320, is from the Siemens Velaro platform), Renfe’s class 106 (Talgo Avril platform), or a Hitachi-built Frecciarossa 1000 could all theoretically be approved to run through the Channel Tunnel – but at the time of writing are not approved. All of these trains would allow the coupling of 2 200m trains, introducing operational flexibility that e300 and e320 trains lack. (Note: Deutsche Bahn overcame the 2x200m trains coupled problem through the Channel Tunnel – this is allowed – it is just currently not done by anyone)
Other things to consider
This post is written based on the idea that some future train through the channel tunnel would be a electric multiple unit (EMU), with a fixed formation – and either 1 train, or 2 EMUs coupled together – would be run through the tunnel. Theoretically a locomotive with carriages, as was foreseen with Nightstar, could also work – but no rail company has ever attempted this as far as I am aware. But it would not be impossible.
High Speed 1 line is built to standard European loading gauge, so a train built to the smaller UK loading gauge is not necessary. And the high speed line between Lille and the Channel Tunnel, the tunnel itself, and High Speed 1 have extra capacity. Even the main part of LGV Nord south of Lille has some spare capacity. So capacity is not going to be where this falls down.
Solutions at Lille-Europe and Bruxelles-Midi
If a direct train is impossible, what about improving connections? There is some potential to do this – especially at Lille-Europe and to some extent at Bruxelles-Midi.
Currently if you want to travel from Basel or Geneva to London by train you need to go to Paris Gare de Lyon, cross Paris on the RER, and then board Eurostar at Gare du Nord. Hassle. There is 1 direct train to Lille-Europe from Bordeaux each day, and from Strasbourg just 2. From Lyon (6 trains) and Marseille (4 trains) to Lille it is better. But at the very least a way from Switzerland to Lille without going via Paris would be a good start. Were we to be really aspirational, a München-Stuttgart-Karlsruhe-Strasbourg-CDG Airport-Lille Europe train would likewise make some sense.
At Bruxelles-Midi it is a little better – connecting from Deutsche Bahn trains onto Eurostar is, at least in theory, possible. The merger of Thalys and Eurostar should lead to a smoothing of ticket booking for those two operators, even though – because of Reason 4 above – I do not see the merged Eurostar-Thalys offering any London to Germany direct trains any time soon.
So there you have it. Direct trains to London are hard. But better connections, especially in Lille-Europe, would be a decent step in the right direction in the short term.
Keep all of this in mind the next time you hear some breathless politician’s words about services to London regurgitated uncritically by the press.