AS the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel on May 6 approaches, interest in challenging the monopoly that Eurostar has enjoyed since 1994 in the cross-Channel high-speed market has never been higher. “We are very busy,” says Mr Jean-Pierre Ramirez, who as rail network director is responsible for all matters relating to providing operators with access to the infrastructure that Eurotunnel manages, the fixed rail link between Britain and France.

“Operators were few and far between in the past and now they are all coming at the same time, so we have as many now as we had at any stage in the past 15 years,” he says. According to Ramirez, “the market potential is quite obvious. You can see that demand is under-satisfied at the moment, there isn’t enough fleet capacity and the trains are full.”

Commercial confidentiality prevents Ramirez from naming names, but last year two new start-ups announced their intention to enter the cross-Channel market. Evolyn intends to operate between London and Paris with a new fleet supplied by Alstom, while Heurotrain plans to compete with the airlines and Eurostar on the London - Amsterdam route, applying to Dutch rail regulator ACM to introduce 15 trains a day from December 2027.

Among Europe’s incumbent operators, Renfe of Spain, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) and Trenitalia have all indicated their interest in operating to London. German Rail (DB) worked with Eurotunnel on developing a London - Frankfurt service which, while never coming to fruition, laid some of the groundwork for making it easier and faster to introduce new high-speed services through the Channel Tunnel.

Last December, Mr Yann Leriche, CEO of Eurotunnel’s parent Getlink, while announcing his intention to double the number of high-speed services operating between London and destinations in mainland Europe over the next 10 years, revealed that Eurotunnel has cut the time to market from to 10 to five years.

“At present there is a cross-Channel market with very large potential, both for existing destinations and new destinations, but with also very large capacity,” Ramirez says.

The Channel Tunnel was designed to carry between 20 and 30 million high-speed rail passengers a year, compared with the 10.7 million passengers that Eurostar carried on Eurotunnel infrastructure in 2023. This was however a 29% increase on the year before, contributing to a 26% year-on-year increase in Eurotunnel railway network revenue, which in 2023 was €369m, compared with €726m from its own shuttle services carrying cars and trucks through the Channel Tunnel.

“What is very much limited at the moment is the capacity of the market in terms of fleet,” Ramirez says. “Eurostar has its fleet of 25 trains, it operates up to 25 return services a day at peak times, 16 to Paris, nine to Brussels and Amsterdam, that’s it.” Making it easier to introduce new rolling stock to operate through the Channel Tunnel is fundamental to both adding new destinations to the Eurostar network and allowing new operators to enter the market, he says, and Eurotunnel has been working on this for some time, also benefitting from industry-wide efforts to simplify technical specifications as well as European legislation.

Perhaps the most important of the four main areas of work that Eurotunnel has undertaken to cut the time to market has been to remove almost all of the national technical rules applying to its own infrastructure, replacing them with the relevant Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs) covering the whole of the European Union (EU).

Ramirez explains that when TSIs were first introduced, they existed in parallel with national technical rules. Work was then done to eliminate national technical rules by replacing them with TSIs where the new European specifications had more exacting requirements, ensuring that standards were not watered down. Eurotunnel worked with the British rail safety regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), its French counterpart EPSF, and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA). “That took some time, but we got there,” Ramirez says. By 2020 the national technical rules for the Channel Tunnel were simplified, removing those that duplicated the provisions of the TSIs, with the result that only two now remain.

The first is the requirement for trains to be equipped with Eurotunnel’s legacy cab signalling system, TVM 430, also in use on the high-speed lines connecting the Channel Tunnel with London, Paris and Brussels. ERTMS will replace this in due course, Ramirez says. “You’re looking pretty much at 10 years from now, so 2030-34,” he says, pointing to the cost of installing the European standard system and the need to deploy it on a route-wide basis in close collaboration with fellow infrastructure managers SNCF Network and HS1 Ltd in Britain. In the meantime, “there is progress on the technology side which very much circumvents the technical barrier,” Ramirez says, noting that interoperable cab signalling able to accommodate ERTMS as well as national legacy systems is now available from the major signalling suppliers such as Alstom, Hitachi and Siemens. “It still adds a cost but it’s less and less of a penalty,” he says.

The second remaining national technical rule covers the fire resistance of trains operating through the Channel Tunnel. This specifies that full-width internal partitions and fire barriers between traction equipment and passenger or staff areas must be designed to offer a minimum of 30 minutes of protection from heat and fire effluents. “With the TSIs there was the introduction of an alternative, either 15 minutes plus an additional fire evacuation safety demonstration or the historic national rule,” Ramirez says. “Nobody has managed to make the alternative work with the safety authorities. For the moment we are stuck with the 30-minute rule, but we’ve worked with manufacturers to discuss how that can be implemented. Once you design in the equipment, the additional cost is not prohibitive.”

Jean-Pierre Ramirez, Eurotunnel’s rail network director.

The result is that any high-speed train that complies with the TSI for locomotives and passenger rolling stock, the Loc & Pass TSI, and also meets the requirements of these two remaining national technical rules can operate in the Channel Tunnel. “It’s a completely different universe,” Ramirez says. “It changes the world completely for developing and bringing to market new rolling stock.”

Replacing national technical rules based on existing practice with the more objective TSIs should enable manufacturers to offer more or less standard products to high-speed operators, as trains no longer have to be a particular length or be capable of being divided in two to enable one portion to be driven independently in the event of an emergency. The case for operating two 200m-long trains coupled together instead of a single train such as Eurostar’s original 375m-long Alstom e300, for example, was successfully made as part of DB’s original attempt to enter the cross-Channel market.

“Manufacturers understand that standardising, simplifying, creating product lines makes them more competitive,” Ramirez says. “They know that it’s actually cheaper to build more compatibility with different markets into the base product, rather than making bespoke trains everywhere.”

Under the second strand of its programme to cut time to market, Eurotunnel has worked with rolling stock manufacturers to ensure that its simplified technical standards can be incorporated in new designs. “We’ve gone out to share it with different manufacturers so that they are able to integrate that in their future products,” Ramirez says.

The introduction of common technical standards across Europe removes the need for rolling stock operating across national borders to comply with different sets of national technical rules, which made introducing new fleets a lengthy and far from simple task. “In some cases, trains would actually have to be so complex to fulfil the rules of different countries that it was not Mission Impossible, but particularly difficult, risky and costly,” Ramirez says. The major risk of delays to both the production of these new trains and obtaining the necessary national approvals often resulted in a very long timescale for developing and rolling out new services. “Once you’re looking at 10-year projects you can only have state-owned players looking at that, you need political will to develop the market in that context,” he says.

Now, under the Fourth Railway Package, manufacturers rather than national operators can develop new designs and seek the Authorisation to Place on the Market (Apom) that enables them to enter passenger service. “It’s their product, they know what they are able to get approved and they can take the approvals risk which enables them to offer a much more viable proposition to operators,” Ramirez says. “They are selling them approved trains, which from the operator’s perspective takes out a huge chunk of risk in trying to procure new trains to go to new markets, and that makes a massive difference.”

The other aspect of the Fourth Railway Package that Ramirez highlights is the role of ERA as the default approvals body for cross-border rolling stock. “You’re working with TSIs and with one European safety authority,” he says. “Instead of having to prove in six different languages to six different national safety authorities that the train can brake, you do it once and to one set of rules. It’s all centralised at ERA, and it makes the process more neutral and more accessible for manufacturers.”

“It changes everything,” Ramirez believes, but this major step-change will only become apparent with the emergence of the next generation of high-speed trains that is now under development. “Manufacturers are only starting that process,” he says. “For that generation they are the ones specifying what goes in them, they are the ones submitting them for authorisation, they can create for themselves a catalogue of products.”

“Then they are able to propose products with a much shorter time to complete production and approval,” Ramirez continues. “Once you have approval for components that are common to rolling stock in your catalogue, that’s it, you’ve got it, you don’t have to demonstrate it the next time you sell the same train. And if you work to a catalogue and it’s the same train, you don’t even need to have it authorised again.” As a result, time to market for the new train becomes a three-year process instead of six to seven years, he says.

Aside from rolling stock, Eurotunnel’s work to develop cross-Channel high-speed traffic has included conducting market studies to identify viable new routes, an activity that has also been underway for some time. Ramirez himself presented the business case for a London - Amsterdam service to Eurostar in 1999. “We promoted the potential and opened up their eyes to what and when was a viable business proposition for them to develop and operate,” he reports. “The market study, the blueprint, is exactly what has been introduced.”

More recent studies are following the same methodology, based on viability when rail has the potential to attract 50% of existing airline traffic with a journey time of 4 hours or less.

“If anything the parameters have changed in favour of rail since then, due to airport security controls becoming stricter over time, and also border throughput,” Ramirez says. “The main event in the future will be climate pressures, and potential measures to encourage modal shift to rail, which could and should potentially move the tipping point even further towards rail. But we’re not counting on that because these are political decisions and they could take their time.”

“There is a ranking order of the volume and potential profitability of new routes,” Ramirez says. “Amsterdam was always first, with up to 3 million passengers a year. Now under 4 hours, it’s a no-brainer.” Applying the same approach to Germany, Eurotunnel has highlighted the potential of a route from London to Cologne and Frankfurt, with journey times of just under 4 and 5 hours respectively.

“What you’re looking to have is an attractive proposition, and then modal shift will happen over time,” Ramirez says. “You find that if you build the offer, add convenience, enable people to work on the train or relax, they’ll travel more.”

Operators tend to assume that such induced demand will add between 40% and 50% to the existing air market. “Eurotunnel is more cautious,” he says. “We make the business case stack up on 0% to 20% induction, and that’s a very reasonable amount.”

According to Ramirez, a high-speed service from London to Cologne and Frankfurt has the potential to carry 2 million passengers a year. New routes to Switzerland could attract a further 2 million, combining a route to Geneva forecast to carry just over 1 million passengers a year with a second to Basle and Zurich, which together add up to “a very attractive proposition,” he says.

“The south of France has potential, but with greater seasonality, which doesn’t work well for rail, it’s easier to switch resources on and off with air services,” Ramirez says. Potential destinations include Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon. “We placed the emphasis on the much larger markets with much larger potential for rail,” he says.

“There is additional complexity for new destinations in the form of train path development,” Ramirez points out, as well as the need to develop secure terminals where passengers can undergo security checks and complete border formalities for leaving the Schengen area and entering Britain. Work on paths and station facilities is the fourth strand of cutting time to market. Eurostar had to develop the London - Amsterdam route on its own, working with the different infrastructure managers and other authorities involved.

“In the end it took them 10 years to start a direct service in both directions,” he says. “A 10 to 15-year rollout time is far too long, so what we’ve done is to go and work with other infrastructure managers to prepare train paths for Germany and station areas for cross-Channel terminals in Cologne and Frankfurt. Plus we’ve also worked with national authorities to explain that they have to get ready to create a new border.”

Hopefully, Eurotunnel’s development work will expand travel between London and new destinations in mainland Europe, and potentially produce the benefits that competition has brought to the high-speed markets of Italy and Spain in the form of increased service frequencies and lower fares, inducing further demand. As an impartial infrastructure manager, Eurotunnel is keen for all its customers, both old and new, to succeed. “We need to make sure that operators, including Eurostar, can just decide to order rolling stock, finance rolling stock, and then get on with it and offer new services,” Ramirez says. “That’s what it is missing today. The current market offer is insufficient.”

“All the ingredients are in place, the technical factors that we’ve worked on make it easier than ever before and a more valuable opportunity than ever before,” he says.

“Watch this space,” Ramirez concludes. “Sometimes people say that because something hasn’t happened in the past, it will never happen. I would say they are very wrong in this particular case.”