Webinar interview with Michael and Edith Robson

Published: 11 April, 2024 | Tags:

Michael and Edith Robson
Michael and Edith Robson (video still)

Edith ran the successful campaign “Save our Eurostar” between 2007 and 2009 to maintain the direct services from Ashford to Brussels, running a petition that reached 11,000.

Michael spent 40 years on the rail industry and in railway consultancy.

This was the sixth presentation of the Petition Anniversay Webinar that took place on 20th March 2024.

Save Our Eurostar campaign

The couple were living in Ashford while Michael commuted to Brussels for work. When they learned that Eurostar planned to discontinue the direct services between Ashford and Brussels, Edith began a campaign. By handing out flyers to passengers arriving on the Eurostar from Brussels, Edith discovered that people generally weren’t aware of the impending change.

“It was a primitive time because we had no social media or Zoom.”

Edith Robson

The campaign eventually attracted rail professionals (Dafydd Pugh), French nationals living in Kent such as Olivier Cadic (now a senator in the French parliament), businesses like Gusborne Vineyard who relied on day trips to the Champagne region, and KCC. Edith used her own trips on the Eurostar to petition passengers – until she was asked to stop by Eurostar themselves!

MEPs got involved, especially Caroline Lucas. The 90-day rule meant UK nationals whose work took them to Brussels had to come home regularly. At the time, the UK still have a financial stake in Eurostar. These factors meant that the political pressure on the government to get involved was greater than it is today. The campaigners delivered a petition to No. 10 then occupied by Gordon Brown.

The campaign was successful in saving and even expanding the service from Ashford.

Michael Robson

Michael was Area Manager at Ashford when the tunnel and the international station were being built. His role was to make sure this happened, and he has a good understanding of what happens inside the tunnel. In his later career he was based in Brussels as Head of European Affairs for Network Rail and then Secretary General for the European infrastructure.

When HS1 was built there were four international trains per hour. The plan was that the first of these four would stop at Ashford to be overtaken by the second, and the third and fourth if necessary, so that they would arrive at the tunnel entrance in the right order.

Open Access rail

The only private high-speed rail competition (as opposed to national operator vs national operator) exists in Italy and Spain. SNCF (a national operator who owns most of Eurostar) is very keen to compete in Spain and they are spending a lot of money trying to enter that market. Money they could be spending on Eurostar, but when asked why they don’t, they shrug.

In the psyche of SNCF, London is just a branch of TGV Nord, and not a very important one. We need to get across the message that London still matters.

There are new private operators coming along in France. One of them is Kevin Speed: they have worked out that the TGV station Haute Picardie doesn’t have any services, rather like Ashford. They will start running an open access service from Paris calling at Haute Picardie and Lille in 2026.

Another new French company called Le Train will run trains between Bordeaux and Paris under open access from 2026, in competition to SNCF.

Any new entrants to the Channel Tunnel market, unless they can find some Siemens E20s (old Eurostars) to run, will need to get trains built and certified before they can operate. This is unlikely before 2026, or even 2027 or 2028.

Other operators through the Channel Tunnel

Evolyn, Virgin, Heuro and Renfe have been touted as competitors to Eurostar for the Channel Tunnel passenger market. Michael’s guess is that they won’t enter the fray until 2026 or 2027.

One plan, which has gone quiet recently, is the possibility or Eurotunnel buying and leasing rolling stock to another operator. There is a model for this in Germany, though it does not cover long distances at the moment. The European Investment Bank invests in the regions to buy local trains which they lease to whoever operates them. It might be what Eurotunnel has in mind for a new cross-Channel HS rail operator.

If they pick an operator who currently has a safety case, Renfe would fit that, it would make it easier and quicker to get operational.

Legal and staffing conundra

To Michael’s knowledge, no international station has ever been closed in the UK.

To close a domestic station or a piece of railway over which passenger domestic trains run, you have to go through a legal process. That hasn’t happened for Ashford or Ebbsfleet, nor have the spurs which were re-signalled got any passenger services on them. There is a question mark as to whether there is a legal requirement to run trains over that bit of railway, carrying passengers and stopping at Ashford.

(Alex Bienfait interjected that other rail professionals have told us that there was a missed opportinity to enshrine this when HS1 was sold off).

The other issue is the capacity in Ashford and Ebbsfleet to deal with EES. There is a chronic shortage of UK border staff, and efforts are being made to recruit more for Dover. But none, as far as he can tell, for Ashford, Ebbsfleet or Stratford, in case that gets used. We need to lobby for that too.