Railfuture supports economically-viable direct rail services from Britain to the European Mainland where there is a strong public demand for a competitive value-for-money alternative to flying. In October 2018 two Railfuture directors sampled the much-delayed Eurostar served between London and Amsterdam. This  ‘Go and Compare!’ article by Railfuture’s European Passenger Group concludes that it is a good service but the issues preventing the direct return train need to be resolved as a matter of urgency.

Go and Compare.  We went and compared Eurostar with air from London to Amsterdam

Eurostar has been operating increasingly-intensive services between London (via the Channel Tunnel) and both Paris and Brussels since 1994. The service grew once the High-Speed 1 line fully opened in November 2007. Although a minimal direct service from London to the south of France has also operated, there has been little interest by the train operator in providing longer-distance trains beyond the borders of France and Belgium. That changed on 4 April 2018 when Eurostar commenced a weekday service of two direct trains from London St Pancras International to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, with one service on each of Saturday and Sunday. The headline end-to-end time is 3 hours 50 minutes.

Eurostar handed out ‘goodies’ to passengers taking the first train.

To celebrate the launch of the direct London-Amsterdam service Eurostar handed out a tote bag, flags and Stroopwafels

However, because of problems at the Dutch end there is no direct return service as yet. Passengers have to use a service to Brussels and change there so that immigration and customs formalities can be performed there.  The connection time is around 48 minutes (see graphic below). Eurostar has been lobbying the Dutch Government ‘extremely hard’ to get them to agree to sign a bilateral treaty between the UK and the Netherlands, so that these formalities can be undertaken in Amsterdam and Rotterdam stations. It hopes to achieve this by the end of 2019.

Because of difficulties with the Dutch authorities Eurostar was unable to allow passengers boarding at Amsterdam or Rotterdam to travel beyond Brussels, where they had to depart to go through security and then board a later Eurostar train to reach London. This graphic shows the connections in 2018

In October 2018, just five months after the Amsterdam service launched, Eurostar announced that with 130,000 journeys so far that an additional service will start in June 2019 (by extending the 10:58 London-Brussels service to Amsterdam and retiming it to start at 11:04 plus dropping the stop at Lille). This will make three services each way on Monday-Friday. This commitment has been made even without proper return through journey arrangements, but an increase to five per day will only commence when a direct return service quality can be provided.

At first sight providing a one-way service sounds ludicrous, but Eurostar were confident enough to try it and test the market. It seems to have worked. Why?  Firstly London - Amsterdam is the largest air market within Europe. Paris would be, but Eurostar has half of the Paris market. The second and critical reason is that Eurostar and air fares are increasingly single-leg priced. Everybody books online and booking one leg by rail is just like booking a single airline ticket. The actual mode of transportation is irrelevant.

The time is right to “Go and Compare”. Two Railfuture directors, Ian Brown and Jerry Alderson, made the trip to Amsterdam on Eurostar. One returned by air the other on an Amsterdam to Brussels on Eurostar, a service shared with the Thalys, which uses older trains than Eurostar. This is our comparison.

London to Amsterdam by Eurostar

St Pancras International is a far better starting point than Heathrow both from the point of view of people in Greater London, but also for people originating their journeys north of London. London City Airport is more competitive from parts of east and south London, which still begs the question regarding whether Stratford International should be served by Eurostar. It was built by the state at a cost of £700m for this purpose, but has only been used for fast domestic services. It has not even been used by Eurostar on rare occasions when the trains were unable to use St Pancras.

The service was launched with only two Amsterdam departures per day, an 08:31 and an early evening service. Until additional late morning services are introduced people who cannot make St Pancras International by around 07:45 are still likely to travel by air unless they want a late evening arrival, or are leisure travellers content with a change of train at Brussels (for business travellers time is money).

Customs and immigration procedures apply both for Eurostar and air. The one difference is that there is no further check on arrival as there is by air arriving from a non-Schengen country. This is a plus for Eurostar. The other plus for Eurostar is that you take your luggage with you (two large items free of charge plus hand luggage), avoiding the increasing tendency of airlines to charge disproportional prices for luggage to allow low headline fares and recoup the money from extras.

Many people have a very negative mind’s eye of airport security chaos. Actually this has improved dramatically at Heathrow, but London City is having a hard time in coping as business on offer has outgrown available capacity. Security is less onerous on Eurostar – liquids are allowed and on the British side laptops and mobile devices do not need to be removed from bags.

St Pancras International has its check-in and security moments too but generally and on this occasion the procedure worked well, almost everybody has e-tickets just as air travellers do, the security staff are cheery and St Pancras has e-Passport gates, some of which work.

The general waiting area is generally adequate but like London City Airport it can soon fill up, an issue to be tackled if Eurostar expands significantly. There is a coffee shop in the lounge. Check-in opens 90 minutes before departure, which is less than for airports and presumably to minimise overcrowding. There is a vast array of outlets in St Pancras station though. After check-in there is also a business lounge very much up to the standard of airline lounges, better than some, but there is no hot food and the cocktail bar is not open at weekends. Eurostar is more generous than most airlines in terms of accruing points to achieve its Carte Blanche status so regular users (having spent £1,800 in 12 months) get lounge access. London City does not have a lounge.

The train journey

Boarding begins 20 minutes before departure. The older Eurostar trains (renamed e300s after their refurbishment) have not been equipped to operate on the Dutch railway system and the new high-speed line in the Netherlands. The enormous German Velaro e320 Eurostar trains carry nearly 902 passengers, equivalent to three Jumbo Jets. The majority of the accommodation is Standard Class with 2+2 seating

[Eurostar]Just like the older e300 trains, Standard Class has two-plus-two-seating throughout on its new Eurostar e320

There is a first-class style portion at each end of the train.  Both styles are comfortable and much better than air in terms of seat design and space. The front section is marketed as Business Premier, for those paying a high fare for full flexibility, with full hot meal catering priced at airline business class levels. The rear portion with exactly the same interior is marketed as Standard Premier with modest premium over the standard fare. Both have with 2+1 seating.

[Eurostar]Row of single seats in Standard Premier class on brand new Eurostar e320 train introduced into service in late 2015 and standing at platform in St Pancras International station

Standard Premier class included a continental breakfast before Brussels (cold two-course meal at other times) and a snack and a drink after Brussels.

Eurostar passengers paying a little more (occasionally less!) to travel in Standard Premier class rather than Standard Class are giving a light meal. This photo shows the breakfast served when leaving London for Brussels and Amsterdam

The staff were welcoming and accommodating. When the new service was launched Thalys staff were used for both operational and customer service roles on the Brussels to Amsterdam section, with all staff changing over during the very brief stop at Brussels Midi. Eurostar has now recruited its own staff for this leg based at Brussels, a sure indication that they are in for the long term, but there is still a complete change of staff at the mid-way point.

The following image shows some of the messages, including the next stop shown on the overhead screens in each carriage. Unfortunately, it is rather basic, and is not real-time so it does not say how soon before arrival is expected or provide any information about connections

Each carriage on the new (e320) or refurbished (e300) Eurostar trains shows information on screens, including the next stop. Unfortunately, it is rather basic, and is not real-time so it does not say how soon before arrival is expected or provide any information about connections

The train was full throughout and very few people alighted during a short stop at Brussels. The train arrived on time at Amsterdam Central. Major stations in the Netherlands have barriers but the self-printed barcoded Eurostar tickets worked perfectly.

Overall, based on this experience Eurostar compares favourably with air in this direction, except for people wanting a morning departure who cannot reach St Pancras in time for an 08.31 departure. The additional planned midday departure from 2019 should address this.

Amsterdam to London by BA City Flyer to London City Airport

For comparison the journey started at Amsterdam Centraal station to London City as more comparable to St Pancras than Heathrow.

The journey actually took longer than the outward Eurostar (3 hours 50 mins) at 4 hours 15 minutes. This is, however, currently quicker than the return Eurostar offer with the wait at Brussels.  A direct comparison is difficult as the journey time depends on how much time you leave for airport check in, or for the Brussels interchange.

Generally it is fair to say that journey time by rail and air are similar on this route. The normal argument for travelling by air is speed. This argument no longer applies to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The train from Amsterdam to Schiphol Airport was the new high-speed Inter-City Direct service which used the high speed line from the airport to Rotterdam. This took 15 minutes. The Inter City style coaches with small end doors meant queues to board, luggage piled up tin the vestibules and several minutes to get off. The local trains take about 25 minutes and are far more suitable for people with huge amounts of luggage.

Schiphol Airport is a bit of a nightmare. Firstly finding the check-in machine involved a very long walk, similarly to security and immigration, a further walk if you want to use an airport lounge, then a walk the length of the airport to the gate.  The airport is designed as a single hub for interchange and being so large accommodates all planes at gates, unlike at Heathrow. This would be a nightmare for a family with young children.

Security is all high-tech X-ray, no arches and queuing well organised despite being busy. Immigration is mainly e-gates and is, again, efficient.

The plane left 45 minutes late and people were queued in the jetway for about 10 minutes to board.

BA City Flyer use the Embraer 170 and 190SR aircraft, 2+2 Concorde style seating, just about the most comfortable economy air travel available. This is a strong contrast to the Airbuses used to Heathrow with cramped 3+3 seating. Where British Airways have abolished free food and drink in economy on short flights, BA City Flyer continue to serve drink, including spirits, and a snack. This flight like the Eurostar was full but the small 170 version was used with only 70 seats.

The flying time was only 45 minutes. Arrival at London City was efficient, e-Passport gates were in operation (Probably not enough of them if two or three planes arrive at the same time) and transfer onto a Dockland Light Railway service to Bank station talks only four minutes.

The journey from Amsterdam to Central London required three purchases (train, air, DLR) or two purchases plus Oyster for the DLR.

Overall this experience was quite acceptable for a relatively-fit traveller or somebody who likes shopping en route at the airport, not so good for a family given the long walks at Schiphol. It isn’t quicker any more. In a conversation with two people en route, both had not tried Eurostar on this route but had to Paris, both said they were aware of the new train service and were contemplating trying Eurostar.

Eurostar to Brussels and onward to London

All Eurostar trains leave from platform 15 Amsterdam Centraal central, which is at the far end of the station, furthest away from the metro lines, but it is a direct route and easily reached in a couple of minutes. The service appears on the information screens throughout the station, and immediately before the stairs up to the platform as shown below.

Eurostar trains leave from platform 15 at Amsterdam Centraal station. Electronic display screens show the layout of the train, and some passengers are able to use the Eurostar lounge on the other side of the station

Frequent travellers with Carte Blanche status can use the business lounge, but the offer to all users is limited to coffee and one soft drink. Even a bar of chocolate has to be paid for.

The station is fully barriered but the barcode on the Eurostar ticket (or mobile phone app) is read and accepted. There is no check-in to the Eurostar service itself, except at the doors of the Business Premier and Standard Premier carriages, so one can turn up and board within 10 minutes of departure.

The fare for Standard Premier Class between Amsterdam and Brussels in only a few Euro more than Standard Class, and provides a drink and a bag of sweets, with catering staff only making one visit through the train.

On the service that Railfuture sampled, the Standard Premier carriage was full and it terminated at Brussels (on the through platform 3) with the journey taking about 1 hour 50 minutes. Everyone had to alight, and it appeared faster than from the Eurostar terminal platforms (1 and 2) because it is more spacious. The process allows for the train to be ‘sanitised’ (checking that no luggage that might potentially contain a bomb or weapons is left on board). Depending on the service, that a different set of passengers may then board for the journey to London.

The only fault experience was the on-board information screens which remained stuck on ’the next station is Rotterdam’ for the whole journey. Like many train operators, on-board CIS is something that Eurostar needs to make a more reliable and much more useful. It compares poorly with airlines that give real-time estimates of arrival times and show the location of the aircraft.

Give it a try!

All in all, this is a commendable venture by Eurostar which despite the limitations of the return leg of the journey is a commercial success. It is a potential game changer in terms of rail development in that three hours is the general norm where rail can seriously compete. 4 hours is increasingly the new norm as we have seen a similar change with increased rail demand and market share on other routes too taking over four hours, particularly London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Railfuture has established a good relationship with Eurostar so we can provide them with passenger feedback and continue to evidence the case for further improvements.

We hope many Railfuture members will give it a try.


Eurostar had had a ‘very good year’ in 2018 with passenger numbers up 7% across all markets, helped by the new Amsterdam routes, which accounts for a little over 5% of its services.

A slight concern for the long-term future of the London-Amsterdam service is that the Dutch Government has decided to route all international trains from France, the UK and Belgium to Amsterdam Zuid station rather than Amsterdam Centraal station, and it would be implemented by 2024 though probably sooner.

Further Reading

Review of Eurostar’s new 230 trains when sampling the London-Paris service written on 1 Sept 2016

Analysis of Raifuture’s Eurostar Snapshot Survey of passengers written on 19 Sept 2015

Read more Railfuture Go and Compare reviews