Early optimism

On 6th May 1994 I went on the Channel Tunnel opening Eurostar special conveying HM the Queen Elizabeth II. The President of France, Francois Mitterand, came from Paris in his own Eurostar which met nose to nose next to the red carpet opposite a tent at Frethun, Calais. HM the Queen travelled through the Channel Tunnel to get to the ceremony, but the President of France did not, of course, to get to Calais. Not to be outdone on the way home though, the British return train left first and paused in the Eurotunnel Folkestone station. The French President’s Eurostar train directly followed and passed round the Eurotunnel terminal car shuttle loop non-stop and returned through the Channel Tunnel to Paris for a quick wave for us all to see. I think this must have been the only through train routed through Britain not stopping in Britain – ever.

25 years on

It is difficult to contemplate that 25 years have passed. Eurostar’s 6m annual passenger target and the equivalent 6m tonne freight target were set to underwrite the Channel tunnel funding. Eurostar after a high fare (toll related) slow start actually did better than this now touching on 12m passengers pa, 25 years on.

The promise of Regional Eurostars and Night Trains serving English regional destinations, Wales and Scotland was soon quietly dropped but investment in these was part of the Channel Tunnel Act commitment process (ie the Channel Tunnel was deemed a National project). British Rail went through the motions to physically prepare for these but to no avail, although there was a feeling at the time that a day train to Paris from the north of England might just go ahead but not the night operation. Eurostar hung onto the day Eurostars but BR disposed of the sleeper vehicles to VIA, the Canadian passenger train operator, before they had turned a wheel in passenger service.

Another revolution?

The first 25 years has demonstrated that, even with a monopoly supplier, high speed rail can compete with air for three hour journeys. Eurostar is the market leader for the largest international flow in Europe ie between London and Paris. The three hour journey time horizon was a French TGV concept, borne out mainly because most domestic high speed TGV journeys in France can be completed in around 3 hours or less. It had almost become folklore.

French Railways have no particular incentive to run anywhere else although Brussels, of course, is part of the original agreement and is also successful in market share terms.

From the English end Eurostar dabbled with a few “holiday dated trains”: the Ski train, Eurodisney and the Lyons, Avignon, Marseille trains, all round trips from London and largely inaccessible from the rest of Britain.

Then as if by magic came Amsterdam in February 2018, two years ago; initially two trains, now three and only in one direction. This broke the four hour barrier. Railfuture undertook a Go and Compare train v air test in 2018. The conclusion was that rail is seriously competitive with air (including the through journey time outwards). The train was full from end to end. The other breakthrough was an afternoon departure so opening up the service to a wider catchment area including Scotland. Obviously Eurostar is less competitive with air from Manchester and Scotland as the train connection to London has to be added to rail but both have frequent direct air connections to Amsterdam.

Nevertheless a one way service was not the barrier envisaged by many. Airline pricing, unlike rail is on a single leg basis so Railfuture’s round trip air comparison took only seconds to book. The Amsterdam service is a success and now Eurostar has got the go ahead to operate directly from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to London; the number of through trains is set to grow in stages to four then five per day.

The dawning realisation is that there are other rail markets that open up based upon the success of the Amsterdam Eurostar if operators had or could obtain the equipment to operate them.

The two that Railfuture is campaigning for are:

  1. London to Germany and Manchester to Paris. The market to/from Germany is more dispersed but significant, but the necessary change in Brussels just does not hit the spot with passengers in terms of passenger trust. A through train to Koln or Frankfurt will. Cologne is 358 miles from London, Amsterdam is 337 miles, Edinburgh is 403 miles. Koln is a far better rail hub than Brussels.
  2. Manchester to Paris. Manchester to Paris was dismissed 25 years ago. Since then the airlines have done the job for rail in building up the market to a level equivalent to London to Paris 25 years ago. The distance is 504 miles.

Railfuture has sharpened up its relations with international rail operators and we will strongly campaign for service expansion where there is a viable case for it. Railfuture will also continue to campaign for a decent deal for passengers with missed connections both in Britain and on the Continent.


Ferries, long the mainstay of travel to the continent, have lost interest in foot passengers without cars. The future may see a loss of interest in passengers with cars in ferries owing to the trials of driving on the continent. For example vignettes (clean air stickers) need to be purchased to drive in 8 French cities including Paris and counting. The ferry companies are increasingly turning their attention to freight. The only operator trying to develop the rail-air-rail market is Stena Lines with the “Dutch Flyer” ticket. NS (Nederlands Railways) operate the London to Harwich train service and train services in the Netherlands. This ticket to anywhere in the Netherlands is attractively priced unless you want to sleep in a cabin but slow taking 6 and a half hours crossing the North Sea avoiding wind generators. Stena are to be commended for this.

Air travel and the environment. Will HS2 help?

For those of us who like spreadsheets and data the Civil Aviation Authority is a rich source of information. Although, as stated, Eurostar does well on London to Paris and Brussels it does not register on the scale for other continental destinations from London, nor from other British regions, Wales and Scotland. Strategically unless we decide that rail travel to the continent is for London and the South East only, even success with our rail aspirations is unlikely to make a material difference to rail/air modal shift. However,contempt for the north is no longer seen as a political winner and what happened in 1994 is unlikely to be tolerated in 2020.

The erstwhile HS2 spur to London Heathrow Airport is not in the HS2 plan. HS2 is not a consideration in terms of the government’s air/rail strategy although it will increase connectivity to Manchester and Birmingham airports, which are already the dominant non-London airports in Britain (together with Edinburgh). This might increase polarisation on these airports although regional bodies will demand better links to smaller airports as we have seen at Teesside. Railfuture will continue to campaign for improved regional rail links to airports and a more integrated approach to ticketing.

Air travel is here to stay. Environmental issues are also here to stay. The question is who gets there first in addressing these issues. Rail has a natural environmental advantage, which we must make the most of in the short term. Rail is its own worst enemy of course, in not electrifying the network fast enough, heavy unsuitable trains and the complete lack of research. The automotive and the airline industries acknowledge their own strategic vulnerability, so are investing billions in research into alternative technologies. We must strongly campaign to ensure rail can exploit its natural advantages through network electrification and alternative fuel technology. We only have a short window as many people now predict that our roads and even air travel will be electrified before our railways. The most telling fact has emerged recently regarding the fact that air travel around the Scottish Islands is to be carbon neutral by 2035.

Railfuture does not therefore campaign against other modes, Railfuture campaigns to make the rail mode better by investment and research. We really do need to address the environmental issue both by making rail more efficient and, more dramatically, by doubling the capacity of the rail network so environmental benefits can really start to show.

Rail links to smaller airports

The work undertaken by the London Airports Commission looked quite carefully at mitigating emissions from expansion at Heathrow. More fuel efficient and larger aircraft will continue to be the trend but surface access is the area where most effect can be achieved in terms of mitigating emissions by providing good rail links and premium priced parking. The parking argument works two ways of course, as an airport operators make more money out of parking than any other service they provide. There is no real commercial incentive to promote rail links except that they are popular with passengers, especially in America, the land where you dropped your car off at the terminal building kerbside check-in, if you are old enough to remember this. Ironically British Airways won the National Rail Awards freight category award last year for its environmental contribution by operating 16 aviation fuel tank trains a week directly to Heathrow!

Britain is behind the game on the development of airport rail links, yet from an environmental perspective this is the best way of mitigating emissions at airports. Away from London, Manchester and Birmingham airports which dominate air travel partly as a result as being seen as accessible by rail, only Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Newcastle airports have viable rail links. This is quite a contrast to experience in Continental Europe with a range of established rail links to principal airports including Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Oslo and Moscow.

Two new ones have just been completed, both in cities which have a good base of public transport yet their airports were not rail connected: Kyiv (Ukraine), population 3m, and Vilnius (Lithuania), population 538,000. They have both come up with the same model using the same rail equipment.

Kyiv Boryspil Airport Go and Compare

Kyiv as a transport hub faces two ways. Night trains operate eastwards to all over Russia. There are no flights. Looking westwards air travel has grown fast particularly as Kyiv has sparse rail connections with the west. As an aside Kyiv is a great interchange point between these two transport worlds for air/rail journeys. Railfuture has conducted a Go and Compare exercise on Moscow. Kyiv is very similar with an efficient Russian style metro system, trams round the perimeter of the city and a rather austere suburban rail system now starting to find its feet as congestion and traffic restraint starts to bite the richer commuters living out of the city. Interestingly former Russian Federation cities, including Riga also treated here, adopted the same transport model and have sought similar solutions using the rail network with its latent capacity, given the decline of long distance rail travel.

The starting point is a military airport not connected to the national rail network in both cases.

Kyiv Airport is quite a way from the City – 35km. Taxis were a rip off, but Uber has largely seen these off. The traditional link to the city was the airport bus, complete with seats that recline, but don’t recline back, on bus ticketing where you might get a ticket or not, luggage loading and unloading on the offside on a busy thoroughfare, moderate fumes etc. It is if the whole thing had been carefully designed to create Communist style ambiance for the tourist, although to be fair it works perfectly well and runs all night. The fare is approx £3 dearer than local buses but not premium as we expect in Britain.

The new rail air link opened on 30th November 2018 so we can see the result of a year’s operation. It goes from the main station (Kyiv Voksal), from a dedicated platform with its own waiting room. Tickets (credit card ony) can bought from a TVM, or from the ticket office if you want the palatial experience or want to unload local currency. The price is actually just less than the coach for a much better product, especially if you use a wheelchair or are carrying luggage. The service is hourly or better day and night and takes 40 minutes just less than the bus. Signage at the airport is non-existent and many people, including me, discover the rail link on the return journey as you have to cross the railway station to get to the bus stop.

The trains are operated by the State Railway with smart helpful staff over the vast existing network out of Kyiv onto a new non electrified single track spur into the airport. Single car railcars are used, now largely in pairs supplied by Polish manufacturer Pesa. We are used to poorly designed train interiors so these are a surprise, with a large disabled toilet in the centre of the vehicle, massive luggage stacks also in the centre in the door area and high density seating at either end. It appears that Pesa are marketing these vehicles for low volume start up operations.

Loadings are high as people find out that it is there and I am informed more railcars are now on order hopefully before the operation gets a reputation for overcrowding.
The new Kiev rail air link at Kiev airport. Simple station design, separate alighting and joining platforms. Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture
The airport station is classic “people mover style” with two tracks with a platform either side for alighting and a central joining platform where you take the train at either side, the most passenger friendly configuration.

Well done Ukraine. Glasgow, Liverpool and Leeds await.

Vilnius (Lithania)

The Lithuanian authorities have adopted exactly the same model for Vilnius Airport which is nearer the city at 4 miles. A station opened at the airport in 2008 but it was 2019 when the dedicated rail air service commenced.

The frequency is uneven with some gaps but one or two trains per hour operate at time when people want to travel.

Just as Kiev the service runs from the main station in Vilnius taking just 8 minutes to the airport. The dedicated platforms are accessible as are the Pesa railcars, exactly as supplied for the Kiev service. The airport is still at the development stage, although Ryannair have found it, so the best pre-flight experience is an excellent meal at the full service station restaurant at Vilnius station.
The new Vilnius rail link Pesa rail car, as also supplied to Kiev.  Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture
Interior of the airport rail car showing provision for luggage and wheelchairs
Vilnius Airport station is an unstaffed halt but has information screens, security and lift access for the footpath into the airport terminal.
Vilnius Airport station. Much more basic than Kiev, but equipped with a lift, security and electronic information. Pay on the train from the airport end. A real value for money approach. Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture
The fare for such a high level of quality for people with luggage is ridiculous 0.70 Euros, probably the cheapest premium rail air link in the world! You buy the ticket from a full service ticket office in the main station with friendly multilingual staff. Ridership is lower than the Kiev operation but people are finding out about it and once tried are likely to make repeat journeys.

Well done Lithuania. Another example where old style railway infrastructure is being intelligently adapted to modern day requirements and indeed rail helping in a modest way to mitigate at least the surface access environmental issues with air travel.

Railfuture will continue to campaign for value for money rail schemes to more airports in Britain, citing initiatives such as these where value for money is a consideration.