French transport minister says he is working with UK to keep firm going amid fall in passengers
An empty Eurostar check-in area at London St Pancras station. Only one service a day is running on its London to Paris, and London to Brussels routes. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images
Eurostar will get help from France and the UK to ensure it survives the pandemic, according to the French government.
The cross-Channel rail service has said its future is at risk and appealed for state aid, with passenger numbers down more than 95% on pre-pandemic levels. It now operates just one train a day each way on its London-Paris and London-Brussels routes.
The French transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, told an Assemblée nationale committee on Thursday that the state would “be there at Eurostar’s side to maintain this strategic link between our two countries”.
Djebbari said the government was working with the UK on “mechanisms for aid, proportional to everyone’s involvement in Eurostar,” to keep the business going. He said he had been in discussion for several weeks with the British transport secretary, Grant Shapps.
The French state-owned railway SNCF owns 55% of Eurostar, and Belgium 5%. Britain sold its 40% stake to private pension funds in 2015.
Eurostar is headquartered in the UK and has argued that Britain has come to the aid of the rest of its railway system, spending billions to release train operators – including other foreign state-owned firms – from franchises as revenues have disappeared. It has also pointed out the aid in loans given to aviation, arguing that rail provides the greenest international link to the UK.
While Eurostar’s plight has been evident for some time, with shareholders having pumped an extra €200m into the business, it has only recently admitted its survival is in doubt. The chief executive, Jacques Damas, told Agence France-Presse on Monday that “catastrophe is possible”.
Further travel restrictions, including the need for pre-departure Covid testing on both sides of the Channel since Monday, could choke passenger numbers even further, Eurostar fears. A spokesperson said the situation “continues to remain critical for us and the need for support is there.”
The UK Department for Transport says it has been engaging extensively and regularly with Eurostar since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak and will continue to discuss Eurostar’s financial situation with the French government. No agreement has yet been reached, however.
The Commons transport select committee chair, Huw Merriman, called on the UK and France to set out a joint commitment to backing Eurostar. He said the company contributed £800m a year to the UK economy and was a unique connection to mainland Europe: “We simply cannot afford to lose Eurostar to this pandemic,” he said.
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