Eurostar stations in Kent to stay closed for at least two years – partly due to Brexit

Uncertain future: the unused Eurostar terminal at Ashford International (Simon Calder)
Uncertain future: the unused Eurostar terminal at Ashford International (Simon Calder)

Margate, Maidstone and London: those are the most exotic destinations accessible from Ashford International station currently. And partly due to Brexit, there is no prospect of trains to Paris, Lille and Brussels being reestablished any time soon.

Eurostar, which runs passenger trains between London St Pancras International and Continental Europe, has revealed it will not re-open Ashford International, or its other Kent Station, Ebbsfleet International, in 2023 as had been hoped. The train operator added: “We cannot make any commitment for another two to three years.”

It follows that 2025 is the earliest that either station can expect to be on the international route network.

Both stations are on High Speed 1, the main line from London to the Channel Tunnel. Ebbsfleet, close to the M25 in north Kent, was specifically constructed as a “park and ride” location for travellers heading for the Continent.

Ashford station was remodelled at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to accommodate international services.

They closed very shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Eurostar blames “an uncertain and fragile environment” following the coronavirus pandemic for their continued closure.

In a statement, the company told The Independent: “Our recovery is progressing well, but we have considerable financial commitments following the pandemic which we will continue to face for a number of years.

“We must focus on our most profitable inter-capital routes to enable us to meet our financial commitments, stabilise our operation and our customer experience, before considering any further developments.”

But Eurostar also points to added broader complexity as a result of Brexit, saying: “Our border environment has also toughened post Brexit, and further complexity is expected with the launch of the EU’s Entry Exit System.”

The Brexit agreement negotiated by the UK government requires British travellers to be treated as third-country nationals, facing additional barriers on entry to the European Union.

Instead of simply checking travel documents for validity, frontier officials must stamp all passports – and, theoretically at least, interview the traveller about their intentions, financial resources and onward travel plans.

The Entry Exit System, which is due to come into operation from November 2023, is designed to facilitate such checks. It is an automated IT system for registering travellers from outside the EU and Schengen area.

Each time the traveller crosses an EU external border the system will register the date and place of entry and exit, plus fingerprints and a facial biometric.

The system, says the European Union “will replace the current system of manual stamping of passports, which is time consuming, does not provide reliable data on border crossings and does not allow a systematic detection of over-stayers”.

British travellers are now restricted to 90 days’ stay in any 180 days, but checks currently depend on looking at passport stamps and are haphazard.

Eurostar would not comment further, but the company has already warned a Parliamentary committee about the potential impact of the new entry exit system on its operations.

Gareth Williams, strategy director for Eurostar, told peers on the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee: “We don’t currently see a practical solution. If we take the peak of August, up to 80 per cent of people will have to go through the system.

“We do have a very extreme space challenge. At a minimum we would require over 30 kiosks, and an area about the size of our entire check in area at St Pancras.”

The requirement for biometrics will not apply to EU citizens.

Mark Smith, the international rail expert known as The Man In Seat 61, tweeted: “Eurostar has just confirmed it will not call at Ebbsfleet/Ashford in 2023, with Brexit (yet again) part of the problem.”

Eurostar’s statement about Ashford and Ebbsfleet ended: “We understand that this will be disappointing for the local communities, and we will continue to work closely and openly with the local councils on the future of the stations.”

In the 2016 EU referendum, Ashford voted 59-41 in favour of leaving the European Union.

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