Peak time Eurostar trains are daily forced to run across the Channel with hundreds of empty seats because border police cannot process passports quick enough.
About 350 out of 900 seats are normally left unsold on the first services between London, Paris and Brussels despite “huge demand” for the greenest form of international travel, Eurostar bosses said.
British passports have to be stamped separately, even for travellers who can go through electronic gates, since Brexit. Passengers are now told to arrive up to 90 minutes before some departures but bottlenecks at stations still mean that they cannot all be processed in time, said the chief executive, Gwendoline Cazenave.
She said the Covid pandemic, when international travel was largely ruled out, had “reduced drastically the number of border police staff in Paris Nord and St Pancras”, and with Brexit rules in force, “you have to stamp UK passports”.
Cazenave, who has run the group since October 2022, added: “Even I – I have a work permit, they know who I am – they ask: ‘What are you going to do in the UK?’. It takes almost 30% more time [than before].”
She said tackling capacity issues at stations was her main priority, with Eurostar only able to offer about 70% of pre-Covid and Brexit seats across the Channel.
Only 250 seats can be filled leaving Amsterdam because of the lack of space at the station for border controls, yet London to the Dutch capital is one of the busiest air routes in Europe, Cazenave said.
She said the demand for travel in the UK was huge, with leisure “fully back” and about 80-85% of business travellers compared with 2019.
“The pity is we cannot offer enough seats because of these station bottlenecks,” she added.
She ruled out reinstating Eurostar’s popular ski train service or reopening Ebbsfleet and Ashford stops in Kent until the situation at big hubs was resolved.
The chief commercial officer, François Le Doze, said while early morning trains were generally most affected, to avoid delays escalating, seats were limited on services throughout the day. He said: “We have become expert in capping trains – fine tuning the number of seats available.”
He admitted it was making fares much more expensive for passengers wanting greener travel: “It’s like organic food. “As long as there’s a capacity issue it throws up difficulties,” he added.
The queues and capacity constraints are likely to be further exacerbated when the EU’s entry-exit system for foreign travellers, including UK nationals, is introduced. It has now been postponed until at least the end of 2023. Cazenave said the postponement was welcome but it remained “a major concern”.
Cazenave was speaking in Brussels as Eurostar unveiled a new logo after its merger last year with Franco-Belgian high-speed operator Thalys, and reaffirmed its ambition to grow to 30 million passengers by 2030, from a combined 19 million across the two firms in 2019.
They will be brought together under a single website and booking system from October 2023, allowing easier booking of direct and connecting journeys between London and the continent. UK passengers will be able to buy Eurostar tickets for German destinations including Cologne and Dortmund, connecting via Brussels.