Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, is poised to disrupt Eurostar’s three-decade monopoly on cross-Channel trains, joining the ranks of emerging competitors seeking to reshape the London to Paris rail route landscape.
Marking a possible return to the United Kingdom rail sector, British business tycoon Richard Branson could re-enter the scene after Virgin Trains ceased operations in 2019 after more than 22 years of service.
Phil Whittingham, former head of Avanti West Coast trains, is said to be positioned to lead the new venture. Despite being early, the project has ambitious plans to connect London with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.
However, a spokesperson from Virgin Group maintained a non-disclosure stance, stating that the company does not comment on rumours or speculation.
According to local media, Richard Branson is in a rivalry with Eurostar, similar to his famous competition with British Airways. It comes as Virgin Atlantic competes with British Airways on transatlantic flights.
Branson will be one of many contenders to challenge Eurostar’s dominance if the speculation holds true. Amidst the distracting debate surrounding HS2, attention is turning to HS1. Evolyn Mobility Limited has recently entered the train travel scene, promising to launch cross-channel services by 2025. The same is a UK-registered entity that may sound like a motorised wheelchair provider.
In addition, in the fray is Heuro, a young Dutch player, throwing its hat into the ring with promises of services linked to the continent starting in 2028. The cross-channel travel landscape looks set for a transformation, with multiple players looking at the coveted streets.
The deliberate opening up of Europe’s rail network, aimed at dismantling monopolies, has successfully led to lower prices and improved service quality on popular lines such as Paris to Milan, despite the temporary closure of the crucial France-Italy link due to a landslide, possibly lasting until the summer of 2024.
The disruption to services at Kent International stations, namely Ashford and Ebbsfleet, is expected to last until at least 2025. Recent disruptions include routes to Disneyland Paris in the summer, the suspension of services to Marseille during the Covid pandemic and an imminent ban in Amsterdam – Trains connected due to ongoing renovations at Centraal Station.
Stratford International, located in east London and somewhat ironically named, offering trains only as far as Kent, has been considered a terminus for future cross-channel services.
On the other hand, despite the recent £1.1bn investment in a cultural quarter, it lacks the prestige of iconic terminals such as St Pancras or Gare du Nord. Furthermore, it is not at all prepared to handle international travellers efficiently at this point.