Two recent articles in the news have poked me into writing a bit more about Transmanche Metro, the long-talked-about scheme to allow people in the Pas de Calais region of north-east France to commute to Kent and London via the Channel Tunnel. The PdC has quite an unemployment problem, and today’s Guardian points out that a number of people already commute daily via the Eurotunnel car shuttle service. The Opale Link consortium has argued for a “local train” to Ashford, Ebbsfleet and London from Calais, and with the support of Kent County Council has tried to lobby Eurostar into providing a better service. Eurostar, of course, is not remotely interested (it only serves Ashford four times a day each way anyway) as its main business is shifting people between the cities of London, Paris and Brussels.
Eurostar no longer technically has a monopoly on passenger services through the Channel Tunnel, and so it’s theoretically possible for someone else to operate a passenger service. They’d have to buy train paths from Eurotunnel (not too difficult, there’s apparently still spare capacity) and also acquire running rights on either HS1 (preferably) or the classic lines. Southeastern, the incumbent Kent operator, is an obvious candidate, not least because they’re already operating a high speed service to Ashford via HS1. Whoever it is would also have to acquire a train suitable for use in the Channel Tunnel, which has its own safety regulations (e.g. – the trains have to be at least 300m long so that wherever they stop one coach will be near a cross-passage to the service tunnel) and this is likely to be one of the biggest headaches unless they can get hold of a few of the ex-Eurostar sets that were intended for UK Regional Eurostar services that are now being operated by SNCF. Southeastern’s existing Hitachi-built high speed trains are not suitable due to being too short and not having the necessary fireproofing.
The other big headache will be dealing with the onerous “Fortress UK” policies on immigration and security. Eurostar are already having a fair few issues with this, and have just announced that their new Marseille-London service will stop for nearly two hours in Lille in order to complete border formalities! This is totally ridiculous, but the odds of getting it changed are slim. So, I suggest a partial workaround. The Transmanche Metro would use ex-Regional Eurostar trainsets, as noted above, and would terminate at Calais-Frethun station, which is already a border control post. Local trains would be timed to connect sensibly and allow time for border formalities. London-bound services would call at Ashford, Ebbsfleet and Stratford International stations, and would be considered as UK domestic train services and not subject to any additional border control (since all this would have been done in Calais). The return journey would involve a complete de-train at Ashford for Calais-bound passengers to have their passports checked and baggage x-rayed. If the x-raying could be waived, the border control could then be done on the train whilst standing at Ashford station, potentially with the doors locked so as to prevent anyone boarding after the inspectors have checked each coach.
I’d like to see it happen, but I doubt it ever will, more’s the pity.