Closing the Lille Loophole?

June 12th, 2014

We went to Aachen in Germany for a long weekend, and returned on Tuesday night. This involved taking the last Eurostar train back from Brussels, which leaves at 1952 each weeknight, calling at Lille Europe, Calais-Frethun, Ebbsfleet and London St Pancras. Having used this route before in 2012 I was expecting to have to deal with quite a lot of border-control paranoia associated with the “Lille Loophole” – which involved passengers buying tickets on Eurostar from Brussels to Lille, allowing them to board the Eurostar without having passed UK border control, and then remaining on the train at Lille and continuing to the UK. The UKBA imposed quite unnecessarily draconian restrictions on all other Eurostar passengers arriving in London on trains that had called at Lille (see Jon Worth’s blogpost) by checking everyone’s passports on arrival, causing a 20-30 minute delay!

I’m pleased to report that despite having taken one of the trains (9161) that Jon identifies as a “loophole” train, we were not subject to additional border control in London. There was a UKBA agent at the arrivals desk, but she appeared to be pulling aside a few randoms for extra checks, and we were able to get out of St Pancras within minutes (in fact, we managed to make our 15-minute connection with a Cambridge train from neighbouring King’s Cross). I think that Eurostar, the UKBA and the Belgian authorities have finally managed to find a way around the problem.

Firstly, as of November 2013 (6 months after Jon’s post), Eurostar have reconfigured their arrangements at Brussels-Midi. Lille and Calais-Frethun passengers no longer use the same check-in as UK-bound passengers, and the famous “Lille Corridor” that bypassed the UK border control has now been locked shut. Instead, they are directed to a new “Eurostar intra-Schengen” terminal, which is upstairs, adjacent to the Eurostar arrivals hall. The SNCB news page announcing the change gives several useful clues about what’s going on:

  • Passengers are asked to complete security checks and passport control in the new Intra Schengen Terminal located on the mezzanine level of the station, near the Place Horta entrance”
  • “Eurostar passengers to Lille/Calais are asked to remain in the Standard Class carriage reserved specifically for them for the full journey
  • “Please note, access to the onboard bar buffet will not be possible for passengers travelling between Brussels and Lille or Calais”

So it’s pretty clear that intra-Schengen passengers will be travelling in a locked carriage, separated from the rest of the train. I suspect that given that they cannot legally routinely check passports for an intra-Schengen journey, they will issue some sort of numbered boarding card or temporary photo-ID (taking a photo of each passenger and printing it onto a boarding card, as is done at some airports for passengers on domestic flights). This means that Eurostar can easily ensure that all the Lille and Calais passengers disembark at the relevant station, and I’m pretty certain I overheard the train manager discuss this with her colleague on a two-way radio whilst our train was at Lille. Solving this problem is obviously key to Eurostar being able to operate to a wider range of European destinations – they’re talking about services to Amsterdam, calling at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol, from December 2016 – and they will almost certainly be carrying intra-Schengen passengers between those cities and Brussels, Lille and Calais once those routes open. I do wonder how they’re going to solve the luggage scanning and border control problem for these trains though – there seem to be three options:

  • have the train operate conventionally within Schengen, but require all UK-bound passengers to disembark at the last stop before the UK (Lille Europe or Brussels Midi, probably) and go through border control and security before rejoining the train. This is the easiest to implement, but will negate the value of a through train and be seriously inconvenient for passengers. Eurostar do currently do this for some trains that have come from French stations with no security facilities (Avignon, for example).
  • build a dedicated secure terminal and platform for UK-bound Eurostar trains at all of the above stations, allowing UK-bound passengers to board the train “pre-cleared”. Schengen-bound passengers would have to be segregated to a separate part of the train as appears to be currently being done between Brussels, Lille and Calais.
  • as above, but without a secure platform. Schengen passengers board the train as usual, in their own section. UK passengers are security cleared, and then escorted by staff onto the platform, who recheck ID and boarding cards at each door to the UK-bound section of the train so as to ensure that no-one not cleared boards the UK-bound section.

Realistically, I suspect that the “everyone off in Lille” option might prove to be the only that works, but I remain hopeful that a better solution will be found. It would also be nice if we could abolish the largely pointless baggage scanning process, which made some sense twenty years ago (yes, it’s the 20th anniversary of Eurostar services this year) when a fire or explosion in the Channel Tunnel was an unknown quantity and there was a serious threat from the IRA, but is now basically irrelevant. As far as I can tell Spain is the only other country with baggage security control on trains, because of the risk from ETA, but we haven’t tightened security on the London Underground since 7/7 – it isn’t practical. I would argue that the risk to passengers on Eurostar is much lower than on the Tube even if the baggage scanning was abolished. Let’s hope we get a more “train-like” Eurostar service in future, rather than treating it as an aircraft at ground level!


Thameslink returns!

June 3rd, 2014

It was recently announced that GoVia have been awarded the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise, with the new management taking over in September 2014. GoVia is a consortium of the British firm GoAhead (mostly an operator of buses) and the French firm Keolis, which is part of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. They will take over the services currently run by First Capital Connect, some operated by Southeastern, and then integrate all the services operated by Southern from 2015 onwards. GoVia have promised that they will resurrect the “Thameslink” brand for this extensive network.

Looking at this mostly from a Cambridge perspective, a number of interesting service improvements are promised for our route:

  • firstly, the ongoing refresh of the Class 365 trains will continue over the summer, so the new operator should have a newly-refurbished fleet of trains on the fast services to Cambridge and King’s Lynn
  • the current hourly service to King’s Lynn will become half-hourly from May 2o17 (once the junction improvements in Ely have been completed)
  • the Cambridge-Kings Cross expresses will be retimed to get the journey time down below 50 minutes again (this is probably as a result of needing less margin now that the Hitchin flyover is open)
  • new trains (the Siemens Class 700) will be introduced

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete in 2018, there’ll be quite a big change to the timetable. The DfT and the Thameslink Programme have both published maps that show services we can expect in four years time – now, there’s always a risk that they might be changed again in that time, but it’s worth having a look now anyway.

Promises, promises

So, the DfT map promises (mouse over “Cambridge”) that Cambridge will have “six trains an hour to and from central London off-peak” from 2018. Cambridge currently has four trains an hour to London off-peak: two non-stop (one of which has come from King’s Lynn), one semi-fast (calling at Royston, Letchworth etc) and one slow one that serves all the stations between Cambridge and Hitchin and then major stations into London. So, what’s going to happen to the existing services, and what new services will we get?

Helpfully, there’s a clue in the map published by the Thameslink Programme, which shows how trains will be routed through the “Thameslink Core” (between St Pancras and Blackfriars) linking up destinations north and south of London. Each line on the map represents two trains per hour each way (so a half-hourly service, approximately), and two lines are shown as serving Cambridge – making four Thameslink services every hour! The grey line on the map shows a Cambridge to Brighton service, which will also serve Gatwick Airport. The red line shows another Cambridge service serving, err, Tattenham Corner? Really? I used to commute from Croydon to Kingswood on the Tattenham Corner branch – it’s a popular commuter route but by no means a major destination in its own right. Tattenham Corner station itself is really only there to serve Epsom racecourse anyway! However, the reason for doing the Thameslink upgrade is to get more line capacity by reducing the congestion caused at major stations by terminating trains in central London – and the Tattenham Corner off-peak trains currently terminate at London Bridge.

Fast trains to Gatwick and Brighton

Now, my hunch is that the Cambridge-Brighton service will take over the existing stops and timings of the Cambridge semi-fast service, except that it’ll run half-hourly instead of hourly. It currently takes an hour for this service to reach Kings Cross, and likewise an hour for the limited-stop service from London Bridge to Brighton. Given 20 minutes to transit through London and 20 minutes to turn the train round at each end, that makes a nice neat 3 hour cycle – so the half hourly service can be fulfilled using six trains.

Slow trains to Tattenham Corner

I suspect that the Cambridge-Tattenham Corner service will take over the existing Cambridge “slow” train, which takes 90 minutes to reach London. London Bridge to Tattenham Corner services currently take 50 minutes, so with the 20 minute transit time through London that makes 2 hours 40 minutes. Assuming a ten minute turnaround at each end also gives a 3 hour cycle – six trains again would give a half hourly service. If this happens, this’ll be a big step forward for the smaller stations on the Cambridge branch – they’ll get twice as good a service as they get at present.

So, here’s your answer: six trains an hour – two that start from King’s Cross,  run non-stop to Cambridge and continue to King’s Lynn; two that start from Brighton and call at major stations only to Cambridge; and two from Tattenham Corner serving all the local stations.

New trains too

Now, the Thameslink services are all going to be operated by the new Class 700 trains, which will come as an eight-car and a twelve-car version. These trains have big walk-through connections between coaches, so they won’t be coupled and uncoupled the way that our existing trains are. Since the small stations on the Cambridge and Tattenham Corner branches have 8-car platforms, it would seem likely that our stopping services will see the existing Class 317 and Class 321 trains (dating from the late 80s) phased out and replaced with the new Class 700s. I suspect that the old trains might find their way to newly electrified lines in the north-west of England or on Great Western suburban services in the short term. Siemens are supposed to be delivering the new trains from 2016 onwards, so it’s likely that we’ll start to see them operating our existing services before the Thameslink services begin.

The King’s Lynn trains are also due to be replaced with Hitachi-built Class 801 trains eventually – these should start to appear in 2018 as well.

One unresolved question

As yet, we don’t know exactly which services will call at the new Cambridge Science Park station. Cambridgeshire Council’s consultation suggests that all the services currently using the Cambridge-Ely line will call at the new station (i.e. the King’s Lynn trains, the Birmingham-Stansted train, and the Ely-Liverpool St trains), plus one “semi-fast” service currently terminating at Cambridge station will be moved up to terminate at the bay platform in the new station. On that basis it seems likely that some or all of the Thameslink trains will serve the new station – given that it has only one bay platform I might be tempted to suggest that two out of the four Thameslink trains will call there – most likely the faster Brighton services as they have a bit more turnaround margin and will give the promised “semi-fast” service. Let’s wait and see!