35 years ago in February 1986, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Canterbury Treaty with French President Francois Miterrand, and this began the joint construction and operation of the Channel Tunnel. Equally important was the Concession Agreement, signed a month later in March 1986, which provided France Manche and the Channel Tunnel Group with the responsibility for construction and operation of the Channel Tunnel. This agreement ends in 2086.
Back in the 1990s the UK was still planning the route into London from the tunnel, to connect into the much larger European high-speed rail network as shown in this map from a BRB Report in 1993:
Today, ironically perhaps, Eurostar the passenger train operating company, are in the headlines again, with a plea to the UK Government for support, and potential collapse unless funding is made available, since passenger numbers have fallen by 95% due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Quite why Eurostar should seek government funding support in the UK is a mystery, since under PM David Cameron, the UK involvement was sold off to a financial investment group including Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and Federated Hermes from Pittsburgh, USA. French national railways, SNCF retain 55% ownership, and Belgian Railways, SNCB 5%.
This was the headline in yesterday’s Guardian:
In the UK, the Eurostar services only operate to London, as previous options and recommendations to run to UK regional city hubs like Manchester and Leeds were ruled out by previous UK governments. Whilst the present health crisis remains the greatest challenge for passenger traffic, almost all rail traffic in the UK is heavily subsidised, and it is unlikely now that the UK has sold its interest in Eurostar, there will be any support forthcoming.
In Paris too, the French Government appear reluctant to provide further support, and despite its limited extent in the UK, Eurostar carried 11 million passengers in 2019, with, as is noted in the press, plans to expand cross-channel and international services further. That is obviously on hold at the moment – but could it become permanent.
Freight traffic is impacted both by the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit “teething troubles”, although it may become a greater benefit to the UK economy as a whole over time, for export and import of goods, as the changes to regulations and restrictions are implemented. Maybe we could see a return of greater volumes of freight traffic to compensate for reduced passenger traffic between Britain and Mainland Europe, but the present crisis has certainly highlighted more than one transport challenge.