Eurostar, Symbol of a Connected Europe, Is Plagued by Brexit Hurdles

For a generation, the high-speed Eurostar train under the English Channel has stood as a sleek, ingenious emblem of a new closeness between Britain and continental Europe. Now, it risks becoming a symbol of the friction caused by their Brexit breakup.

Until two years ago, passengers could just show their passports for often quick checks, but since 2021, after Britain left the European Union, British travelers in both directions have been required to get their passports stamped. As long as the pandemic kept travel to a minimum, the added time hardly mattered, but as ridership surged in recent months, lines — and waits — grew longer.

The Eurostar company has responded by capping the number of passengers it takes, leaving hundreds of seats unsold on some trains rather than run the risk that the passport bottleneck will delay them. On some trains that would normally carry up to 900 riders, the company is limiting capacity to about 600. The cap took effect months ago, but only drew widespread attention this week, when it was reported by several British news outlets.

While the effects of Brexit on the British economy are still the object of studies and debates, some concrete consequences are becoming clear. For Brexit opponents, the Eurostar problem is one more piece of infuriating proof that Britain never should have left the European Union.

“Every day, in so many ways, more and more evidence of Brexit” making Britain “poorer, weaker, less efficient and less respected in the world,” Alastair Campbell, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote on Twitter. “It is the most enormous act of national self harm and the country won’t begin to recover until we admit it.”

Last summer, when long lines of vacationers waited for their documents to be checked at the port of Dover before boarding ferries across the channel, British officials blamed it on the fact that French authorities had not deployed enough border police to speed up the checks. France’s Transport minister, Clément Beaune, retorted that “France is not responsible for Brexit.”

Mark Smith, a former train station manager and the founder of a website that advises Britons on how to travel by train, said that he was among the first to ride the Eurostar when it began service in 1994, offering travel between Paris and London. At first, it ran from Waterloo Station in London, but it moved in 2007 to a gleaming new terminal at St. Pancras, a service launched on a tide of champagne, and heralded as a harbinger of closeness between the two nations. In addition to Paris, Eurostar serves other European cities such as Amsterdam and Brussels.

The terminals for Eurostar, which whisks passengers between Paris and London in about two hours and 15 minutes, were designed for a Europe in which travelers could move smoothly among countries, Mr. Smith said.

“They were not designed for a situation in which an iron curtain descends,” he said. “They were not designed for Brexit.”

“Brexit,” he added, “by definition has created a hard border between France and Britain in the middle of the channel.”

E.U. citizens can move freely from one member country to another and remain indefinitely, but travelers from other parts of the world, including Britain, are limited in how long they can stay.

As a result, French border police stamp the passports of Britons — who make up about 40 percent of Eurostar ridership — in both directions, to show when they entered the bloc and when they returned home. Britain so far has not imposed a similar requirement on E.U. citizens taking the train, making their travel a bit smoother.

A spokeswoman for Eurostar said in an email that the delays and capacity constraints are linked to a combination of border police understaffing and lack of space at its terminals, especially at St. Pancras Station in London and at Gare Du Nord in Paris, for additional border infrastructure.

The French government said that in 2020 and 2021, it had assigned 15 additional border officers to the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord to handle the new passport checks, but declined to say whether it had deployed any more people at St. Pancras.

Matthieu Ellerbach, an adviser to the French interior minister, said that France’s border police are “fully mobilized” to face these flows and that new border police would be assigned to the task in the next months.

A spokeswoman for Eurostar said that it was working to install more automated passport checks, but as things stand, peak capacity through the stations is about 30 percent lower than 2019. Even with all passport control booths staffed, St. Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour, 700 fewer than in 2019.

A spokesman for the British government said that it was aware of the issues and was in regular communication with Eurostar and the French authorities.

The two will work closely to ensure smooth travel, he said.

Eurostar passengers with passports from the E.U., Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland usually just present their passports at electronic gates or booths, a normally speedy process.

Until Brexit, that was the case for Britons, too. E.U. border officials generally only checked that the British travel documents were valid, and that they belonged to the people holding them. Since January 2021, they must conduct deeper checks that involve the stamping of passports.

Early in the pandemic, when Eurostar revenues fell by 95 percent, the company suspended service to two small stations in southeastern England, between London and the channel, where some trains stopped.

Now Eurostar passenger demand is back at 75 to 80 percent of prepandemic levels, but last summer the company said it would not resume service to those stations at least for now.

In a letter to a British parliamentary committee explaining that decision, Jacques Damas, Eurostar’s chief executive at the time, said that reopening the stations would make matters worse, as it would take border police away from London to work at the smaller stops.

“It is only the fact that Eurostar has capacity-limited trains and significantly reduced its timetable from 2019 levels, that we are not seeing daily queues in the center of London similar to those experienced in the channel ports,” he reported, referring to the post-Brexit logjams moving people and freight through British ports.

“This situation has obvious commercial consequences and is not sustainable in the mid-to-long term,” Mr. Damas said in his letter. “But the immediate consequence is that we are currently not able to respond to the high demand on our core routes linking capital cities.”

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