Webinar presentation by Damian Green MP

Published: 4 April, 2024 | Tags:

Damian Green MP
Damian Green MP (video still)

The Rt Hon Damian Green, MP for Ashford, has been an advocate for the return of international trains to Kent since the service stopped in March 2020.

Last October, Damian brought the issue to Parliament to get in front of the Rail Minister Huw Merriman, who is also MP for Bexhill and Battle. He now brings us updates and recommendations.

This was the fourth presentation of the Petition Anniversay Webinar that took place on 20th March 2024. The webinar began with the petition analysis by BBET.

Damian recognised the “genuine community push” behind our campaign and would like to update us on his own “political push”.

Pushing the rail minister

Damian’s intervention in the House of Commons initiated a conversation with the Rail Minister Huw Merriman, who also happens to be and MP in East Sussex and therefore also represents a population also affected by the loss of international rail services from the Kent station.

Following the debate, Damian kept up the pressure afterwards by putting in writing a series of requests. In response to this, Huw Merriman assured him that he:

  1. Emphasised with Eurostar CEO Gwendoline Cazenave, at a meeting in November, the importance of continuing to engage with stakeholders in Kent;
  2. Welcomes competitors to Eurostar;
  3. Looks forward to continuing to work towards the restoration of the service.

Damian has continued to question Huw Merriman more recently. This time Huw Merriman said he had met again with Eurostar and re-emphasised the UK Government’s desire to see services restored to Ashford and Ebbsfleet.

Huw Merriman has said more recently that his officials will continue to press Eurostar to restore the service to Ashford and Ebbsflet once it is commercially viable for them to do so. Damian concludes that although it wants to keep pushing on this, the Government will ultimately leave it to Eurostar to make a commercial decision.

What levers we can pull?

Damian made the following points to help BBET focus its campaign:

  • Taxpayers’ money was used to build and fit out the stations. In particular, Ashford spent £8m on a new signalling system to allow the new generation of Eurostars to stop there. The work was completed just as the pandemic was taking hold, and was therefore never used. This waste of taxpayers’ money is a factor UK government should be reminded of.
  • Timescale: when can we realistically expect a return of international train services to Ashford and Ebbsfleet? Certainly not before Ocober 2024, says Damian, because this is when the new border system EES will be implemented. The new system will need to time to settle down, which would take us into early 2025.
  • We can make contact with Eurostar’s potential competitors. A competitor offeriing services to and from Kent could put pressure on Eurostar by threatening to lure customers away.
  • We have to convince Eurostar that there are enough people wanting to leave from Kent to run a service that is profitable for them.
  • Relations between the French and UK governments are much better than they were in 2021. Persuading the French government to pressure Eurostar, which is 50% state owned, might have an effect because the French system of government is more centralised.

Questions to Damian Green

Damian Green answered questions before the end of the webinar because he needed to leave.

In response to a question about levelling the playing field for future competitors, Damian said he believed that HS1 and Getlink would welcome the extra business, as there is spare capacity on the line. HS1 have been particularly cooperative because they favour a return of the international service to Kent stations.

In response to a question about the lack of financial support given to Eurostar during the pandemic, Damian countered that contrary to Eurostar’s own protestations, their staff were furloughed at the same rate as everybody else. However, they did not receive UK subsidies because they are part-owned by the French state and therefore not eligible.

In response to being asked persuading Eurostar’s future competitors, Damian pointed out that high-speed train travel in France is by definition city-to-city, and that the French regard it as a British quirk that we expect trains to stop in between. Gwendoline Cazenave spoke last year about needing to clear Eurostar’s debts before they could consider the situation of the Kent stations, but Damian notes that her public statements have been softer of late. We do need to demonstrate the commercial viability to them of stopping in Kent.

In response to being asked what are the 2-3 main obstacles and how do we overcome them, Damian said:

  1. Uncertainty over EES, which at the moment we can’t influence;
  2. Making clear how important the Kent stations are to the wider economic growth of the South East region, already the second most profitable in the country. This could persuade the UK government to increase the pressure on Eurostar;
  3. Diplomacy: keeping the issue high on the agenda of transport ministers until they are fed up with being lobbied by us!