UK joins Europe’s high-speed rail network – Paris and Brussels traffic to fall further?

Image: Eurostar sets Paris to London record
Quicker by train but not cheaper. London-Brussels tickets booked the day before publication were still much cheaper on Ryanair – the $400 saving was easily enough to pay for taxis and other desirable items.

On Tuesday 4th September the United Kingdom finally joined Europe’s High-Speed Rail (HSR) network when an 18-coach Eurostar train travelled between Paris Gare du Nord and London St Pancras in two hours three minutes. This was the inaugural journey to the newly refurbished and rebuilt section of St Pancras station from where regular services will begin in November.

The train also used special track dedicated to the Eurostar services which enabled it to travel through the UK at speed of up to 325kph. This has resulted in the journey time being reduced from two hours 35 minutes to a planned two hours and 15 minutes.

London to Paris air traffic to fall further?

When Eurostar services through the Channel Tunnel began in 1994 trains were able to travel at full-speed through the French countryside but were slowed in the UK by having to share track space with slower moving local trains. However, passengers were still reasonably impressed and the impact on air traffic between London and Paris soon became apparent.

Chart: London to Paris air traffic 1990 - 2006
Source: UK CAA

From a peak of nearly four million in 1994 air traffic has fallen to under 2.5 million in 2006. Allowing for typical growth rates the London – Paris air market would probably be over five million by now were it not for Eurostar services. In recent years Eurostar passenger numbers have risen and Eurostar reports that last year business passengers increased by 17% and by a further 13% in the first six months of 2007.

Chart: Eurotunnel traffic 2000-2006
Source: Eurostar

What about Brussels?

The new faster services will also impact on services to Brussels where the Eurostar has also made an impact on air passenger numbers.

Chart: London to Brussels air traffic 1990 - 2006
Source: UK CAA
Chart: London to Brussels air traffic 1990 - 2006
Source: Ryanair

Without Ryanair’s services from London Stansted to Brussels Charleroi, air travel figures have been in decline since 2000 when part of the Belgium track was finally upgraded to high-speed quality. Ryanair pulled out of the market at the end of April 2004 but returned this June. A total of 16 flights per week are now being operated by the airline.

Ryanair recently ran some advertisements in the UK comparing travel time and costs with the Eurostar service. The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received complaints from Eurostar and members of the public and upheld four of the five complaints made. The airline was asked to remove the claims “Brussels Faster and Cheaper” and “More Punctual” from future ads as the ASA felt total travel time and cost should be compared on a city-centre to city-centre basis.

A quick comparison by reveals that a person wishing to make a day return trip to Brussels on Friday 7th September would pay the following for different options if they booked on Thursday 6th September:

Airline “Flight” Cost Outbound Journey Return Journey
Ryanair £60.89 ($120) Depart STN 06:40 Arrive CRL 08:50 Depart CRL 22:00 Arrive STN 22:10
Eurostar £269.00 ($540) Depart WAT 06:10 Arrive BMI 09:34 Depart BMI 18:59 Arrive WAT 20:18
Brussels Airlines £348.10 ($700) Depart LGW 07:40 Arrive BRU 09:50 Depart BRU 16:45 Arrive LGW 16:45
British Airways £350.90 ($700) Depart LGW 07:40 Arrive BRU 09:50 Depart BRU 16:45 Arrive LGW 16:45
bmi £471.20 ($940) Depart LHR 06:55 Arrive BRU 09:05 Depart BRU 19:40 Arrive LHR 19:50
British Airways £475.20 ($950) Depart LHR 07:00 Arrive BRU 09:10 Depart BRU 19:15 Arrive LHR 19:30
Brussels Airlines £476.40 ($952) Depart LHR 07:00 Arrive BRU 09:10 Depart BRU 19:15 Arrive LHR 19:30
Source: Airline and Eurostar websites

The Ryanair fare assumes no bags are checked-in. The £200 ($400) saving over the Eurostar fare could be used to hire a taxi to travel to Stansted which at that time of the day should be quite convenient wherever you lived in the London area.

Comparing infrastructure costs

The new 110km high speed rail link cost an estimated £75m ($150m) per mile to build. In comparison, according to government figures in 2005, it cost around £30m ($60m) to build a mile of three-lane motorway. BAA is keen to point out that its new Terminal 5 at Heathrow, due to open next year, cost £4.2 billion ($9bn) to build but has required no government funding.


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