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Brexit controls have cut London’s Eurostar capacity by a quarter, CEO says

LONDON — Post-Brexit controls have caused a 25 percent drop in the number of Eurostar passengers able to board services to Europe each hour at London’s St. Pancras station.

Jacques Damas, chief executive of the cross-Channel high speed train company, said St. Pancras can only process a maximum of 1,500 passengers per hour assuming all border control booths are manned — down from 2,000 in 2019, before the end of free movement with the EU.

In a letter to Huw Merriman, chair of the House of Commons transport select committee, Damas said Brexit has led to a “significant increase in the processing times” of passengers at stations, because the stamping of British passports by continental police adds at least 15 seconds to the time it took before the U.K.’s exit from the EU.

The company has long warned Brexit would create problems for its service, in 2016 telling a House of Lords committee the government’s plan to leave the Schengen passport-free area and the little space available at the train stations to accommodate control booths would pose challenges.

Health checks required during the coronavirus pandemic have also contributed to long queues at St. Pancras in recent years, but Damas, who is leaving the post at the end of the month, blamed Brexit for their continuation.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the centre of London similar to those experienced in the Channel ports,” he wrote.

The reduced capacity has “obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid-to long term” and adds to a “temporary challenge” recruiting maintenance engineers for its main Temple Mills depot in London’s Stratford, Damas added. Although more than 40 engineers have been recruited since the spring, the shortages have caused delayed departures because trains are not ready in time.

“Eurostar did not make any operational staff redundant during the pandemic but we were struggling to replace those who left and this has resulted in a numbers and skills gap,” he wrote.

Both factors combined have forced Eurostar to focus on core routes, increase prices and halt dividends to shareholders until it manages to improve its financial situation, Damas said, warning the ongoing energy crisis might add to the list of problems as the business faces nearly £100 million in increased inflationary pressures.

His comments came in response to a letter from Merriman lamenting Eurostar’s decision last month to axe services running from Ashford International and Ebbsfleet International for this year and in 2023, and amid reports Eurostar will not make a commitment for another two to three years on resuming those services.

“The decision not to resume services will have a knock-on effect to the regional economy in addition to the loss of choice for individual travellers,” Merriman wrote.

Eurostar has also announced plans to suspend its direct train service between London and Disneyland Paris from June 5 next year for the duration of the summer. That service has operated since 1996.  

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