The Channel Tunnel is set to become the world’s first rail border crossing to take a leaf out of the aviation industry’s playbook and introduce e-gates with automatic facial recognition technology.

Paris-based transport company Getlink, which manages the continental rail link through its subsidiary Eurotunnel, has partnered on the project with French digital identity management firm IN Groupe (formerly Impremerie Nationale), which is supplying its PARAFE e-gate systems for the scheme. The e-gates are intended to accelerate the border crossing process for travellers with biometric passports.

IN Groupe’s e-gate technology has been installed at airports including Marseille-Provence Airport, Lyon-Saint Exupéry and Nice Côte d’Azur, equipped with facial recognition as well as digital fingerprint technology.

“Allowing a single police officer to check five passengers simultaneously simplifies, facilitates and accelerates border control,” said IN Groupe of its e-gate technology in promotional materials.

The facial recognition roll out at the Channel Tunnel is expected to kick off this year. The first stage is set to launch in early April for the 51,000 coach passengers, primarily tourists, who travel through the tunnel each year.

Swedish security group Gunnebo will install two sets of nine PARAFE e-gates, with one set on each side of the tunnel at Folkestone on the UK side and Coquelles in France – five gates for departures and four for arrivals. Later stages of the project will see e-gates introduced first for Eurotunnel’s FlexiPlus priority shuttle services, and subsequently across the wider system.

“By becoming the first terminal on the Short Strait to be equipped with facial biometric recognition technology, Eurotunnel again demonstrates its mission to enable easier and faster travel for its customers,” said Getlink chairman and CEO Jacques Gounon in February.

Bracing for Brexit

The deployment of biometric border control by Eurotunnel fits the operator’s wider goal of increasing passenger and freight throughput without compromising security. This objective has become particularly pressing in light of the UK’s ongoing and somewhat fumbling attempt to leave the EU, as acknowledged by Hauts-de-France Regional Council President Xavier Bertrand, who attended the signing of the agreement between Eurotunnel and IN Groupe.

“In the context of Brexit, Eurotunnel and IN Groupe have taken the lead regarding the important issues of safety and fluidity,” Bertrand said. “This technology does not replace people but allows us to face new challenges and to save time. The Hauts-de-France region is ready, thanks to Imprimerie Nationale technology which will help passengers. It is tried and tested technology: it provides safety and comfort.”

There is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and the Channel Tunnel’s immense importance for trade between mainland Europe and the UK and Ireland makes it a key stress point. Eurotunnel serves around 20 million passengers, 2.6 million cars and 1.6 million trucks each year, and 25% of trade between the UK and continental Europe passes through the tunnel. The company has been investing heavily to upgrade its systems in preparation for Brexit, including installing van and freight scanners to shorten cargo check times and making general infrastructure improvements.

Last year Eurotunnel also announced a partnership with GE Power’s Grid Solutions to install a static synchronous compensator system to improve the stabilization of power supply on the catenary traction system of the Channel Tunnel. The system is intended to allow for faster response times through reactive power compensation and an improved range of operational voltage, which GE says could almost double the traffic in the tunnel.

An unexpected funding boost to help Eurotunnel make these upgrades came at the beginning of March as a result of British ministerial incompetence. In February, Eurotunnel launched a lawsuit against the UK Department of Transport (DfT) over contracts it awarded to three ferry firms to provide extra freight capacity in a process Eurotunnel argued was “secretive”.

In early March, the DfT settled the lawsuit with Eurotunnel for £33m, and under the terms of the settlement the funds will be spent on improving the company’s UK operations. With the challenges that Brexit could present to Channel Tunnel operations, the cash injection will certainly help Eurotunnel create a faster and more efficient system for processing passengers and freight in a post-Brexit world, with facial recognition and other biometric border security technologies likely to play an increasingly prominent role.