Eurostar's £700m refurbishment drive is about to bear fruit, with the arrival in 2013 of the first new-look train. Julian Turner gets the inside word from Eurostar's commercial director Nick Mercer about the on-board digital revolution, the modal shift from air to rail and new markets in the south of France, Germany and the Netherlands.
When the first Eurostar passenger train left London Waterloo in 1994 bound for Gare du Nord in Paris, Europe was yet to make the historic decision to buy into a single currency, as proposed by the Masstricht Treaty two years earlier. The Eurostar not only revolutionised international high-speed rail travel, it became a symbol of a prosperous new Europe, one where business and leisure travellers were free to seek new opportunities across geographical borders.
Fast forward nearly two decades and the global economic crisis has left many western economies, including that of the UK, teetering on the brink of double-dip recession.
The very future of the Euro remains in doubt. The business world braces itself for the next catastrophe.
Against this backdrop, a high-speed rail operator would be well advised to keep a low profile, consolidate around its core assets and try to ride out the storm, right?
Wrong. In October 2010, just a few short months after Eurostar became a single corporate entity - replacing the joint operation between London and Continental Railways (LCR) and the national railway companies of France (SNCF) and Belgium (SNCB) - the new company, Eurostar International, announced an ambitious £700m overhaul of its entire fleet.
Less than two years later, that job of work is nearly halfway towards being completed. Roughly £500m has been earmarked for new state-of-the-art Siemens Velaro e320 trainsets, while a further £200m will be spent refurbishing Eurostar's existing British Rail Class 373 or TGV-TMST rolling stock.
Next-generation trains: the Siemens Velaro e320
The new trains are 'interoperable', meaning they can function across the European high-speed rail network and provide direct services between London and a range of city centre destinations throughout Europe. After nearly two decades spent serving the UK, France and Belgium, Eurostar is targeting new markets in the south of France, Germany (Cologne) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam).
Add to that a 2% rise in passenger numbers to almost 9.7 million in 2011 and it is little wonder why Eurostar's commercial director Nick Mercer is feeling bullish about the future.
"The first refurbished train will enter public service next year and the first of the new trains will appear at the back end of 2014," he told me from Eurostar International's London HQ. "The Siemens train we've ordered, the e320, is able to operate across the European rail network, so it gives us much more future strategic flexibility.
"The original fleet of Eurostar trains was specified with signalling and power systems that would cover us for what we believed at the time would be their operating geography. Unfortunately, in Europe, as you go across geographical boundaries, invariably you find that such systems change.
"Trains have a lifespan of more than 30 years, so you want to make sure you are looking at not just next year, but where you will be in ten or 15 years time. The new fleet is absolutely an investment in the future."
The new Siemens Velaro e320 contains between 894 and 950 seats and has the capacity to carry more than 900 passengers including their luggage, a 20% increase on the existing trains. The 16-car, 400m (1,312 ft)-long trainsets have a top speed of 320 km/h (199mph). Total traction power will be rated at 16MW.
Get connected: on-board digital innovations
The engineering spec may be impressive but as noteworthy is the raft of on-board technological upgrades, designed to appeal to a new generation of tech-savvy commuters. The new Eurostar fleet will be equipped with the most advanced wi-fi and on-board infotainment of any trains in Europe. This includes real-time travel and destination information, as well as interactive entertainment including video-on-demand, music and news-feeds.
The digital experience begins before customers even board the train. As part of an enhanced Business Premier-class package scheduled to come online in 2012, customers will be able to check-in using a barcode on their mobile phone and access high-speed broadband internet on-board.
Passengers will also be able to assimilate pre-loaded entertainment via their own devices via a secure wireless LAN. This all comes a year after the launch of the first Eurostar app, which allows travellers to book high-speed rail journeys between the UK and mainland Europe on-the-go and receive tickets direct to their phones.
"With new trains, it is easier nowadays to install more on-board systems, but you have to specify them at the time of manufacture," explained Mercer. "Try to do retrospective work and it becomes very expensive and often technically risky. Taking our trains out of service for up to three months for a thorough engineering overhaul gives us the perfect opportunity to do the on-board refurbishment as well."
This multimillion pound facelift also encompasses new quiet coaches, the renovation of Paris Gare du Nord and Eurostar's business lounge at Brussels Midi station, and, most strikingly from a passenger perspective, bespoke interiors on all trains courtesy of Ferrari's favourite Italian design house Pinnafarina.
Continental drift: railing against fuel surcharges
This multimillion pound statement of intent comes at a time when the modal shift from air travel to high-speed rail commuting continues to gather pace. Many airline and shipping operators have had no choice but to respond to the vicissitudes of global oil prices by introducing fuel surcharges.
Mercer is in no doubt that the number of passengers using high-speed rail services over the next decade will increase as more and more people look for cost-efficient, eco-friendly alternatives to air travel.
"The biggest change is the number to passengers that are now connecting by rail," he observed. "In the last financial year, 27% of our customers connected on to our services from what we consider to be outside of our core market. In the UK, that means London, the southeast and the Home Counties, in France, it is outside of the Île-de-France region around Paris. We are definitely seeing a gradual modal shift from air to rail, what we call the connecting market.
"Interestingly, you also see a modal shift occurring on the UK domestic rail network, from car to rail. There is definitely an elasticity linked to the price of fuel."
London 2012 and beyond
In 2010, Eurostar was named as the Official International Rail Services Provider for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, providing arrival and departure services at St Pancras International for those competing and working at the Games, as well as the multitude of sports fans that will arrive in London from the continent.
"Obviously, we deferred putting the trains into refurbishment until after the Olympic Games," said Mercer. "The first train goes in at the end of the Paralympics."
Looking to the future, what innovations does Mercer envisage in terms of gadgetry, trends and train technology by the time the Eurostar fleet is due for its next overhaul circa 2050?
"In terms of the trains, the actual hardware, I don't see it changing hugely because we are relatively constrained by safety and legal regulations," he said.
"We see the biggest change occurring in the off-train digital environment in terms of how and where we distribute our products, and how that affects a customer's decision to buy.
"When you look at the impact of mobile technology, it creates all sorts of interesting opportunities to engineer new products. I think things will look entirely different in as little as ten years from now."