Eurostar - 10 & Still Losing Money
Eurostar at year 10: better, faster but still losing money
PARIS, Nov 12 (AFP) - Eurostar, the high-speed passenger train service linking Britain, France and Belgium, marks its 10th year Sunday boasting record performances, but has yet to get on track to profitability.
Despite the gloomy bottom line, the company plans to kick up its heels in public galas at train stations in Paris, Lille, London and Brussels.
But it is keeping under wraps a special celebration planned Monday in London. The festivities had been postponed a week after a deadly British train crash.
For the Eurostar Group, there is cause for celebration this year after notching record passenger numbers, punctuality and market share last month.
But with all its success, the loss-making company is still struggling. It hopes to come close to the break-even point this year after posting a loss of 60 million euros (77.5 million dollars) in 2003, less than half of the 130 million in 2002.
Since its launch on November 14, 1994, the under-Channel rail service has carried about 59 million passengers on rails operated by the French company SNCF, its Belgian counterpart SNCB and British Eurostar UK on their own territories.
Service has mushroomed up to 16 daily trains each way on the London-Paris route and nine between London and Brussels, compared with an original two each way on each route.
The sleek yellow and gray trains arrive more often on time, or early -- 89 percent in the first six months of 2004, compared with 77 percent a year earlier.
They are faster, with the London-Paris trip now taking two hours and 35 minutes and the London-Brussels route to two hours and 15 minutes.
Instrumental in speeding up the service was last year's opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Britain, allowing Eurostar trains to reach their full speed of 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour and shaving 20 minutes off travel time.
Eurostar says it carries more passengers than all of the airlines combined on the London-Paris and London-Brussels routes, citing Civil Aviation Authority figures for August. Eurostar had a record-busting 68 percent of the London-Paris train/air market and 63 percent of the London-Brussels route.
In October it carried a monthly record of 641,957 passengers.
Over the first 10 months of they year, more than six million people have boarded the trains, 16.2 percent more than a year earlier, fueling hopes the 2000 record of 7.1 million passengers will be smashed.
Like other forms of public transport, Eurostar was dealt a blow by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. It also has had to cope with the arrival of new air travel competition from low-cost airlines.
Launched with grand visions of some 12 million passengers in the first year, the 766-seat Eurostar trains, however, have only been half filled on average, much less than the French high-speed TGV trains, whose cars are twice as small.
Although the company's books remain mired in red, management is seeing the end of a decade-long tunnel.
Last week Eurostar chairman Guillaume Pepy said the group "should finish 2004 close to the break-even point" and added the goal was to become "profitable from 2007."
Pepy blamed the company's financial troubles on the high cost of fees paid to infrastructure managers, including "exorbitant" tolls demanded by Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel.
Such fees amounted to 60 percent of sales last year, he said.
However, the damage caused by the fees -- originally calculated on overly optimistic traffic projections -- was expected to ease as passenger numbers rise.
And the year 2007 also promises to build up steam for the rail company, with the completion of a second section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Britain that will cut the fastest journey time by 15 minutes.