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!