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Can Eurostar Compete with Airlines on Speed and Price? (citylab.com)
84 points by edward 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

I've done the London–Brussels–Amsterdam a few times already (last time this month, next time in 2 months). It is definitely more expensive than flying, but I can't take short haul flights, and I do like the convenience of the train: 2 stops on the tube in London, 15 min tram ride in Amsterdam, and I'm home.

The connection in Brussels is a bit annoying: you only have to change platforms but you have to wait at least 30 min. Removing that connection is I believe critical, as it will gradually save time over the next few years.

The Paris and London Eurostar terminals are nice. The Brussels one is a bit dark and only for 2 platforms. The Lille is alright actually, and only for 1 platform. I'm not sure where they would put it in Amsterdam though (and that might be the cause of the delay). The current Thalys to Brussels always uses the same half platform, but it might be tricky to reserve it for a Eurostar that only travels twice a day. Also, the Amsterdam station has expanded its shopping centre, which leaves little space for a decently-sized Eurostar terminal. I'm intrigued at where they're gonna put it! Maybe build an extension on the water?

For the most part, the train is for me a better experience: less busy than a plane, decent internet, better seats, which all means I can actually work on my laptop. You simply pay a premium for this convenience.

I think both the plane and train markets serve different purposes: cheap but cumbersome or expensive but comfortable.

> decently-sized Eurostar terminal

I think not having a "decently-sized terminal" is a much better approach. If I remember correctly (haven't taken a train across a non-Schengen border for a long time now, but https://travel.stackexchange.com/a/18563 seems to confirm), customs handling often happened on the train - the officers board the train at the last stop of country 1, do their passport checking etc. while the train was going to the first stop of country 2, and get off there.

Any move towards anything that would require a "terminal" as opposed to a platform will (on in the case of the Eurostar, was) just be the first step in making train travel as uncomfortable as air travel is today.

The Eurostar web site already mentions that you should be checking in 30 minutes in advance. I remember seeing the security checkpoint in London, shaking my head, and hoping this would not spread to other train lines.

The Channel Tunnel is covered by the Sangatte Protocol (1991) and the Additional Protocol to the Sangatte Protocol (2000), which together enforce pre-boarding immigration controls. (For comparison, the Treaty of Le Touquet introduced them for cross-Channel ferries in 2003.)

Ultimately British politics has driven all of this: it's much easier, legally, to refuse someone without documentation at the UK border control in France (or Belgium, or in the future Holland) than it is when they claim asylum upon arrival in the UK.

Customs do happen like that routinely on intra-Schengen trains. But intra-Schengen, there's no immigration to clear. In Eurostar terminals at Paris Nord, London St Pancras, Lille Europe and Brussels Zuid there are immigration checkpoints. The ones on the continent are manned by UK border agents, the one in London, by the French border patrol. This way, Eurostar trains are effectively intra-Schengen. Since you clear immigration at a checkpoint, they don't usually have roving customs officers on the trains.

The border checks are the main reason for the delay in extending the Eurostar to Amsterdam. There's going to be a border check on the platform: 15b. That's the same platform currently used for the Thalys to Paris, which doesn't require a border check.

At St. Pancras, it's not just security. You're clearing EU immigration as well. They don't do anything on the train and once you hit the EU, it's just as if you got off an intra-EU train.

In Amsterdam Central Station they are now building stuff for passport control, security checks, etc. This is on the east side, around platform 13 or something. I don't think it is all the way at the back (15) but I never bothered to find out. Certainly not a separate terminal.

Another interesting detail. I'm told that the Eurostar uses a train signalling system that is incompatible with the one used on the Dutch railways. Which basically means that they have to lock out the entire section between Amsterdam CS and the start of the HSL just to let one Eurostar go through.

I read on the Guardian that only the most recent Eurostar train model will be used for compatibility reasons.

My understanding is that it's going to be platform 15b, the east side of the platform closest to the IJ.

In my experience, at least if one books tickets only several days in advance, the train is not much more expensive, but often comparably. It might be different if you book several weeks in advance, though.

For example I just looked up the fares for a weekend trip Brussel - London on the coming weekend. Leaving after work on Friday, getting back Sunday evening.

  Eurostar: Brussel to London: 17:56 19:03
            London to Brussel: 19:34 22:38

  Cheapast Flight (Brussels Airlines): 16:55 17:05
                                       17:50 20:00

If it's in the same ballpark, I definitely prefer the train. Much more comfortable than a plane.

> The Paris and London Eurostar terminals are nice.

You have a very expansive definition of "nice".

St. Pancras station in London is quite nice. Gare du Nord station in Paris--not so much.

Gare du Nord gets, at best, the appellation of "workaday"--it's functional, mostly, but would not really appear on anybody's list of somewhere "nice".

St Pancras is "quite nice"?!

It's a wonderful building, both inside and out. I think it's one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. Neo-gothic and wrought iron.

Image search: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=st+pancras+international&t...

There could be more seating but it's pretty spectacular otherwise.

St Pancras is a beautiful piece of architecture, and has some nice shops, but the pattern of circulation was completely wrecked during the redevelopment, perhaps to encourage people to visit said shops. Happily, the one trip that isn't a massive pain is getting to and from the Eurostar terminal. Security is pretty quick to get through, but there's nothing much on the far side, so leave it until the last minute, and enjoy the station, or even better, if riskier,

Gare du Nord is architecturally pretty average for Paris, ie beautiful, at least from the outside. The shopping is disappointing: the best bakery for a last-thing-you-eat-in-France snack is a Paul, of which there are dozens in London anyway. Security is again pretty quick, and past it there are some comfortable enough chairs, and some overpriced and fairly useless shops.

The atmosphere inside St Pancras is better than inside Gare do Nord - it's brighter and arier. That's pretty much the only difference, though.

The Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal has been revamped in the last few years - it's much better than it used to be.

That's kind of scary, actually, given that my impression of Gare du Nord comes from only a couple months ago.

It looks a lot better from the outside than it actually is on the inside.

Lille's isn't so bad except for the fact that Lille-Europe pretty much only has Eurostar and Lille-Flandres is most everything else. It's walkable but a bit announcing.

Most TGVs that don't go through Paris depart from Lille-Europe rather than Lille-Flandre though. Lille-Flandre is mostly for local (non-TGV) traffic and Lille-Paris as far as I know.

There's also a metro connection between the two (one station) that is accessible for the disabled (... or people with heavy luggage) and that is free if you have a valid train ticket although it's not advertised anywhere.

I don't understand the article. They explain than going in and out of the airport is burdersome, and that taking the Eurostar from London to Amsterdam is a much better experience, except for the change in Brussels

A London to Amsterdam is currently 4 hours and 38 minutes (incl. a 47min change in Brussels). With a propre planning between Eurostar and Thalys, the route could be done in less than four hours.

Taking a flight, on the contrary, will likely be much longer if you include the time to go to the airport, arrive 90 minutes in advance, and the time to leave airport in Amsterdam. Eurostar seem to have a clear advantage here, with prices often competitive, especially if you include Snap tickets.

For a day or weekend trip to Amsterdam without hold luggage, 60 or even 45 minutes in advance is plenty (whereas, contra the article, 30 minutes before a Eurostar departure is not enough in standard class), and Schiphol airport is very organized and only a 20 minute train ride from central Amsterdam.

As I do very often, you can push that advance further. On London City flights, like I did sunday to Rotterdam, walking in under 30m works fine. If you have fasttrack and travel a lot (aka you know where to go in airports), for flights within the EU 90 minutes make no sense at all. Besides cancellations (my return flight to City was cancelled and moved to Heathrow which was a PITA) and the co2 pollution, I definitely prefer planes most of the time. The idea of a train sometimes appeals (even if it takes far more time): seeing the landscape for instance.

Fwiw, we did the math ourselves when living in London: Eurostar to Paris was a no brainer time saver, as was (pretty much) Eurostar to Brussels. But we opted to fly to Amsterdam - time lost at the airport was gained by the short flight.

This was influenced by us living in South London (Brixton). If we'd been closer to St Pancras / further from the airport, the math may have differed.

I'm wondering if a four hour (international) train trip can really compete with air and that the inflexion point lies around the three and a half hour mark. There is a series of nice graphics from JR East (Japan Railway East) factsheet "Railway Business" http://www.jreast.co.jp/investor/factsheet/pdf/factsheet_03.... (linked from http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/investor/factsheet/index.html) that deals with this question directly of introducing a high speed rail service to compete with domestic airlines. Basically if the trip is under 3 hours expect airline market share to drop to 25% or lower. The lone four hour trip Tokyo to Hakodate, still only has 13% market share. Add on border formalities to the planned London-Amsterdam four hours and you'll move past the sweet spot and air will continue to dominate. To succeed the train will need to be even faster and probably do border formalities on the train to get nearer to 210 minutes.

Train-nerd response: "Can This European High-Speed Train..." with a picture of the old-model Eurostars that weren't suitable for running to Amsterdam. There's a gallery of what the new one looks like on https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/eurostar-e320-the-new... .

Meanwhile, in Amtrak they are channeling the vibe of the Cold War era Soviet machinery.

Seriously, who builds these American trains? And when were they built?

Blame the crazy US safety regime, which requires passenger trains to be armoured enough to survive a collision with a freight train.

Right. Because that looks a lot different from this: https://blogs-images.forbes.com/jasonrabinowitz/files/2014/0...

Well, we're talking about actual trains that are in use today, not concept art for 2050s.

Good catch - although as a non-train-nerd, I can hardly tell the difference. Do you know the key differences?

The new trainsets ("Eurostar e320") are built by Siemens as the 'Velaro e320'. They are factory-equipped with ERTMS equipment (in-cab signalling, sensors, etc), and unlike the Alstom-built predecessors, support both the Germanic 15 kV 16.7 Hz AC electrification, and 1500 V DC used in the Netherlands.

The largest single difference is that the newer trainsets can take different voltage/current combinations from overhead wires. This is important because different regions in Europe use different electrification systems, regions that can now be reached because of new trainsets.

As a passenger, they're taller (the original trainsets were built before HS1 so had to fit the traditional British loading gauge) and more spacious inside (partly due to slim seats), and I think a little sleeker on the outside. But the relevant part is that they have the right signalling and electrical equipment to run in the Netherlands.

In my experience, it definitely can't compete on price.

London to Paris by Eurostar are routinely advertised as "from £29", but are usually £300+ return for a weekend.

Whereas flights are often sub-£100.

Eurostar has no competition except the airlines. Businesses will fork out for the tickets as you can't beat the time savings on the Paris route.

It will be interesting when Deutsche Bahn start using the line.

Although DB doesn't run their own trains on the line, if you buy enough in advance, you can buy a "Sparpreis Europa London" ticket from bahn.de, good between any station in Germany and London, for typically in the range of €59-109 each way. That includes both the Germany-to-Brussels (or Paris) and the Eurostar portions of the trip. Can be a pretty good deal depending on the time/date and where in Germany you're going to/from.

In the US, Acela is more competitive with air travel between its major stops. But it's definitely priced for business travel. It's about 2x the price of the regular regional train but is usually less than an hour faster and, while the cars are nicer, they aren't that much nicer. When I'm traveling on my own dime, I usually find it hard to justify spending $100 to save an hour or less.

I generally trend towards flights because US trains are pre-emptible by commercial traffic. My experience has been delays are de jure versus the exception.

The Northeast Corridor isn't without its delays but it works pretty well in my experience. Long haul Amtrak trains, on the other hand, I'm led to understand can be a real horror show with delays largely because of pre-emption by freight as you say.

I'm not sure the current status, but there's presumably a lot of upgrades happening on the Northeast Corridor, in part just to update old infrastructure and in part because it's near capacity at certain times. It's also the region that makes all the money that's then lost in pretty much the whole rest of the country.

Legally it's supposed to be the other way around, but not all railroads give way. Many just take the fine that Amtrak levies on them and shrug.

The way it works is that the freight railroads are supposed to clear a slot for Amtrak's timetable. If Amtrak misses that slot, then the freight trains get priority. The end result is that trains are either on time or substantially delayed (6+ hrs) with no "slightly" late performance.

I don't think that's right. For most intercity service, the tracks are owned by a freight line and freight has priority. There are some routes where Amtrak owns the track or at least has priority rights agreements but they are the minority.

I think Acela is an exception to this, but I may be wrong.

If I have to get to New York from the western suburbs of Boston it is fastest to drive to New Haven and take commuter rail from the terminus in New Haven to Grand Central. Factor in a discount hotel room and an evening drive to New Haven paired with an early train is optimal. Metro North has the scale and frequency that few if any other rail system in the US can match.

Yeah. I've done that. I still generally prefer to drive to Route 128 and take Amtrak from there just to minimize my driving time. But the nice thing about parking in New Haven is that you have more flexibility over your return time that you don't have if you book Amtrak. Especially for business trips, I tend to book a worst case return and end up hanging around.

If you're willing to take in advance and not at the best time, I usually pay around 150GBP for London <-> Lyon. It's way more pleasant/practical than the plane so I'm willing to pay more, but I really wish it would be cheaper in general.

That makes me feel sick :(

Here in south eastern Canada to fly less than 100km from my town to the largest city (Halifax) costs about $500. Passenger trains are not common and any available are old and slow.

I wish we could have a fast rail service here but it would be very expensive to build.

Who flies 100km? It wouldn't cost that much to rent a car and drive it 100km, and also wouldn't take as long as a flight plus airport time.

100km straight line, as the crow flies.

The driving route is 400km across a strait taking a toll bridge or ferry. The ferry is the shorter route but it shuts down in the winter.

Haha ok that makes more sense. For any route for which there isn't enough demand to build a road, there certainly also isn't enough demand to build a fast rail service. This is why rich people who enjoy island and other remote locations have private planes, or in some situations fast boats.

Basically, you need more population density.

We are at 800 people per sq. km now that's quite a bit.

I rarely pay more than £100 return even booking late, usyally pay a little nore for premium economy.

I paid a similar price recently also booked at last minute. I've just returned to Australia from a holiday in Europe. On my travel agents advice I decided to leave UK by taking Eurostar from London to Paris. Incidentally I arrived in London via Amsterdam.

The Eurostar trip itself was pretty pleasant booking it on the otherhand not so much.

I should have purchased the tickets well in advance before leaving Australia instead I left it until the last minute - I blame bad advice from my agent who basically told me. "Oh you can just rock up to train station on the day purchase a ticket to Paris, no big deal".

In Amsterdam I was advised that I may not be allowed into the UK unless I could show them I had a departure booked. So I had to buy the Eurostar ticket in a rush. Eurostar website did something weird with my credit card tripped up some sort of Fraud detection or something Triggered 2FA check with my Australian bank. Bank's text message went to my Australian SIM which of course was inaccessible from Amsterdam. I'd used this credit card all over Europe for 5 weeks up until this point with 0 issues I have no idea what it was about Eurostar site that triped their fraud detection. I had a backup prepaid Visa debit card which the Eurostar site also refused to accept. I ended up ringing friend of mine who lives in Rome in a panic and he was able to order tickets for me.

Border Control did ask how I was planing on leaving the UK I told them Eurostar and they waved me through without asking to see the physical ticket.

Not going to defend Eurostar because I think their pricing is a joke but if you book some time in advance (I'd say at least 2 weeks beforehand), it would be between 140-180£ for a return trip. That's for a peak time trip, leaving London on a Friday at 6pm and coming back from Paris on a Sunday at 6pm.

The £29 one way tickets do go really quickly yes.

With a train what is limiting the number of tickets. I mean adding another passenger cartridge can't be that expensive..

Is it security and border control that slows things down?

Yeah, you can’t just couple more carriages on to a train. The e320 trains are already sixteen cars; extending this means that platforms and signalling systems have to be modified to deal with longer trains, which can be phenomenally expensive. And more traction power needs to be available, which means you will required a motored car.

It’s more complex than sticking carriages together!

Why are the flights so cheap? Do they actually turn a profit at these rates?

Probably not. This article [1] discusses a lot of the factors involved but doesn't really offer any definitive conclusions about how intra-Europe airfares can be so cheap. I'm also a bit skeptical because it lumps JetBlue in with low-cost carriers in the US even though, while it has low-cost specials, is actually one of the nicer airlines to fly if you don't have status.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/10/12...

Plus the trains are pretty unreliable. At leat with planes you're properly reimbursed.

My experience is really bad.

Does the Eurostar not reimburse you for delays? I know from experience that the Thalys does, and I thought the ICE did too.

Yes, they reimburse for delays over 1 hour. 1-2 hours is a 25% refund, 2-3 hours is a 50% refund, and 3+ hours is either a 50% refund (still) if you take it in cash, or a 75% refund in vouchers.

Links: https://faq.eurostar.com/faq/uk-en/question/What-is-Eurostar..., https://faq.eurostar.com/faq/uk-en/question/Can-I-get-a-refu...

Last minute tickets are always expensive.

> a succession of endless, snaking queues where passengers are laboriously urged forward like some indigestible, resented lump of food in a small intestine.

I always appreciate it when journalists choose to add some verve to their prose.

The passport and security at Gare du Nord in Paris very much looks like that. I don't think eurostar has that much of an edge over airports in term of annoying passengers with queues and pointless rules.

Breezed right through Gare du Nord last Saturday. But we actually got to the train station about as early as we would have for a flight because we noted things were such a backed up mess when we arrived a few days prior.

It was a lovely turn of phrase. One of the highlights of my day!

I travel London-Amsterdam once or twice a month. I don't agree with the article's assumption that Eurostar from St Pancras will beat flying, except perhaps for people whose starting point in London is close to St Pancras.

As I see it, once the twice-daily London-Amsterdam Eurostar service starts in April:

- To the 3h41 train travel time, allow at least an hour to get through the London Eurostar bag/passport checks. On a good day it can be 20 minutes but you have to plan for the worst case of an hour. Then once you are departure-side, the cafes have massive queues and there is a scramble for seats.

- Compare that with London City Airport, where getting airside usually takes 5-15 minutes, queues for cafes are short to non-existent, and there's more seating where you can do useful work, etc.

- Then Eurostar has just two departures a day. Great if those times suits you. Not great otherwise. LCY has at least three airlines flying to Amsterdam (BA, KLM, CityJet, maybe FlyBE), giving roughly hourly departure options.

- In my particular case, I work at Canary Wharf. So if I fly back from Amsterdam on a Monday morning, I am at my desk 20 minutes after the plane touches down at LCY.

Anyway, in April my partner and I plan to try Eurostar for the London-Amsterdam direction. We will continue to fly back Schiphol to LCY, to avoid the change of trains in Brussels on the reverse trip.

Eurostar is definitely convenient. Took from London to Paris and return a couple of years ago. 2 hours from downtown to downtown. Much less time for ground transportation or check-in or anything like that than taking a flight. Personally prefer this than flying between London/Paris.

I agree with the general point of the article: that getting in and out of most London airport terminals is becoming hellish enough that trains would be a preferable replacement up to 4-5hrs of journey time.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. And I'm not sure that would work for Frankfurt, for example. With only hand luggage it is still possible to arrive at Heathrow's T2 for Lufthansa within an hour of take-off time, and when arriving you can be on the tube within 20 mins of landing. The lower-priced Eurowings flights also use the same terminal. If all airports were as well run as T2 the trains wouldn't get a look in.

Trains any time, except for this one important exception: regional to hub airport traffic. When you miss the connecting flight because of a delay on the first leg, it's not entirely unreasonable to expect that the airline will take care for their mistake, but when you miss a flight because of train delay, tough luck.

I don't know how large the fraction of feeder passengers is relative to point topoint on those flight, but those won't be switching to planes any time soon. At least not without single ticket/single checkin dedicated airport train connections.

> but when you miss a flight because of train delay, tough luck.

Solution for that is to put the airline checkin at the train station and make getting your from there to your destination the airlines problem.

Which brings up the issue that transportation networks are often hopelessly Balkanized. At least in the US.

Not always in Europe. On some routes Lufthansa and Austrian allow booking of bus or rail transfers to the hub as a leg on the air ticket, which also means they guarantee the connection even in the case of delays. Examples: "Lufthansa Express Bus" which used Deutsche Postbus routes between Salzburg and Munich (now sadly defunct since Flixbus took over the route), and Austrian Airlines selling tickets on OeBB trains between Salzburg and Vienna (though personally I'd still prefer the 40min flight over a 2.5h train in that case).

I always found it particularly amusing, while riding the SZG-MUC bus route, that a lonely little bus stop on the edge of Rosenheim, Bavaria has its own IATA airport code (ZPR).

They are everywhere. Unless travel is all on a single booking, if you miss a train/plane/hotel/etc. because of a travel delay, it's no different than if you just overslept. And it's not unreasonable. It's not really the hotel's fault that you couldn't use your room because of some weather problem a continent away. Travel insurance is probably one answer if you want to buffer against some issues--though I doubt it makes sense in most cases.

Travel insurance is no substitute for integrated service because it adds one more thing to worry about when the itinerary fails: "How do I solve this problem" vs "How do I solve this problem in a way that will be covered".

Considering you have to get to the airport, go through customs/security, fly, go through customs/security again and get to your hotel I think Eurostar is definitely a good alternative.

I used to do AMS <-> LON quite a bit a few years back. It was 5 hours with eurostar door to door or about 3 for flying for me. So I only did eurostar when I had the time and wanted to look out the window or had lots of luggage. It was generally more expensive but deals could be found if booking enough in advance.

I've done it a few times, it's long enough for me that I usually stay in Brussels and get an early train out in the morning.

I did Paris - London by Eurostar. The security and border control part is as annoying as flying. Actually it’s even worse since they check all your luggage. If you fly at least they only check handluggage. Ride was great however.

They definitely check all your luggage when you fly. You just don’t see it because you dropped your bags at the counter.

In train, you spend less time in departure and arrival station, but more time traveling. In general, you also lose less time to reach stations. If you travel for business, you can work far more effectively in train.

First of all it will help if companies simply make it strict policy that train should be preferred over flights when reasonable (I think this is the case already in many companies).

Second, the more flying is taxed for emissions the more it will make the train price attractive.

This fails to address that Stansted is far out of the city centre, while St Pancras could hardly be better positioned

What do you mean? THere's a complete paragraph on the topic:

> And as the number of flights have proliferated, short-hop flights from economy carriers increasingly depart from smaller airports that are at a greater distance from the city, lengthening journey times further—not to mention obliging passengers to rely on sketchy onward transit. Anyone that’s made the 40 minute rail trip out to London Stansted Airport, or touched down at Southend Airport to find the last of the evening trains to London has long gone will know exactly what I mean here.

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