Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A proposed discount service could cut prices by 25 percent.
The trains that roll through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris have proved a roaring success since they launched in 1994, and a new proposal could make them accessible to even more people.
Getlink, the company that manages the tunnel, is exploring a way to run lower-cost routes through the tunnel that could result in ticket prices between 25 and 30 percent lower than current rates. The idea is to follow an existing French model for cheaper intercity travel that cuts costs by using older tracks and suburban terminuses. So far, research into a cheaper service has focused on if and how it might be feasible, rather than exactly when—but has found that such a service is eminently implementable and viable along the lines of companies already in existence. Before that happens, however, the company will have to iron out a few kinks in the international train system—and find its place in an already busy and fairly affordable market.
To North Americans, travel between London and Paris at existing prices might already seem like a steal. Last-minute buys can be pricey, but book far enough in advance and you can expect to pay less than $100 for a round-trip ticket, whether by plane or train. In advance, some existing train services can already be cheaper than flying. Looking at tickets for this coming October, the lowest round-trip prices for both train and plane are around £58 ($77), making the plane more expensive when you factor in the cost of traveling to the airport. It’s only in the month prior to departure that train tickets move markedly ahead of planes.
So how could a new train service find a niche in this market? By treading a middle path: being slightly cheaper than the current Eurostar train service, and slightly more convenient than going out to a far-flung airport. That’s how France’s current low-cost train services, Izy and Ouigo, work. They cut costs by using cheaper suburban railway stations and using older tracks, where fees per mile are lower. The trick to their survival is that these stations aren’t that far out of the way, while their speed still leaves even the fastest Amtrak services in the dust.
Ouigo’s service between Paris and Marseille, for example, may require passengers to board the train way out in suburban Marne La Vallée, but with a journey time of three hours and nineteen minutes, it only takes four minutes longer than the fastest service available through TGV, France’s intercity high-speed rail service. Izy’s service from Brussels to Paris, meanwhile, takes an hour longer than the superfast one-hour-and-twenty-two minute service provided by Thalys, but it still serves the exact same city-center stations.
This seems to be the model for the new Getlink service, which would take an estimated three hours to travel between Paris and London. That’s admittedly longer than the fastest train service currently available (two hours and seventeen minutes)—but bearably so. The thornier question is which stations to use. Opt for a terminus that’s too far out of town and lengthy onward transit could make the service far less attractive.
Just as significant is the issue of passport controls. As with Eurostar’s new London-to-Amsterdam service, British border requirements mean that each station within the Schengen common border area that is served by an international service needs its own border checkpoints on site. British customs refuse to check passports on the train itself, meaning the Paris and London stations would need to create fully secured platforms with booths for border guards in order to accommodate these cheaper rail services.
London already has a suitable candidate for such a facility, suggests French newspaper Journal du Dimanche: Stratford International Station. It was set up next to the 2012 Olympic Park to cater to international arrivals, but was never actually used for that purpose. Stratford is almost ready to go as an international station; it’s also well connected to London’s public transit network and not that far out of town.
In Paris, French media speculation suggests that the most likely candidate would be the station at Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport, which is already used by some Ouigo services. There, it’s possible some border staff could be shared by the airport. The airport’s location is, as you’d expect, decidedly suburban, but it is on the RER suburban rail network, with trains to the heart of the city taking a little over half an hour.
All of these options make the cheap train plan feasible, and the study gives the green light to move to the next stage: building border facilities and negotiating fees. It may still take some time to begin those preparations, however. In the long-run, a successful version of the plan might seriously challenge the wisdom of operating flights between the British and French capitals. It’s not just that flying is a more polluting form of transit. When it’s not faster, cheaper, or more convenient, one has to wonder exactly who would continue to fly.