PARIS – The head of France’s state rail company has sounded the alarm over the future of the Eurostar train service, which connects the U.K. with continental Europe and has been hurt badly by the halt to travel during the pandemic as well as Brexit.
Jean-Pierre Farandou, the CEO of SNCF, which owns 55% of Eurostar, told France Inter radio on Tuesday that “the situation is very critical for Eurostar.”
Passenger numbers on the cross-Channel train service - which reaches U.K., France, Belgium and Holland - have been down 95% since March and are currently believed to be less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.
It comes days after U.K. business leaders called for a British government rescue of the Channel Tunnel rail operator as border closures enforced to stop a highly contagious virus variant threatened to push the service toward the brink of collapse.
Farandou noted that “today, there is one round trip that runs between London and Paris, and one other that runs between London and Brussels-Amsterdam. And these trains are 10% full.”
Farandou is counting on government aid, as was provided for airlines, but is all too aware of how difficult it will be as there are multiple governments involved.
“We have to see how we manage to help this company in the way that airlines have been helped. It would not be unusual for Eurostar to receive aid to get through this bad patch.”
He said that SNCF has “already put money back into Eurostar’s capital to help,” and the company is in discussions with the French and British governments.
Eurostar has asked for access to the same secured loans as airlines, and a temporary reduction on track access charges it pays to use the U.K.’s only stretch of high-speed rail line.
It said in a statement that its situation was “very serious. Without additional funding from government there is a real risk to the survival of Eurostar, the green gateway to Europe.”
Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas has also said the company hopes the four countries it serves will coordinate regarding virus-linked restrictions on travel.
In November, Damas wrote to British Chancellor Rishi Sunak asking for assistance after the U.K. Treasury announced it would help struggling airports.
Businesses in Britain have appealed to the U.K. government to prop up Eurostar.
London First, which represents scores of large property, retail and tourism businesses in the capital, wrote to the government over the weekend urging the U.K. government not to let Eurostar “fall between the cracks of support” offered to airlines and domestic railways.
“Maintaining this international high-speed rail connection into the heart of London has never been more important,” the letter said. “Having left the European Union, we need to actively set out our stall as an attractive destination for people to live, work and play.
“Safeguarding the future of this connection to the continent should be a symbol of both our desire to build back better and our new cooperative relationship with our European neighbours.”
Britain’s Department for Transport said it recognized “the significant financial challenges” Eurostar faced because of the pandemic.
“We will continue to work closely with them as we support the safe restart and recovery of international travel,” it said.