"There is a lot of ambition to connect the rail services in Europe,” says Christophe Lemaire, CIO of the rail operator that originally connected London to the rest of Europe – Eurostar. Europe’s currency and community is having a tough time at present. This is creating hyperbole of currency and community collapse, but a discussion with Lemaire reminds me how integrated our European lives have become and how the business community has hardly left the platform of European possibilities.
I meet Lemaire in a room at the London headquarters of Eurostar, just the other side of King’s Cross station and within easy walking distance of the Eurostar’s stunning new London terminus at St Pancras International. Each meeting room is named after a Eurostar destination and decorated accordingly, and ours is adorned with stylish modern pictures of Paris. The modernity of it and the CIO I’m interviewing tell you a great deal about Europe today, its business leaders and bold vision. The meeting room is quiet, spacious, calm and organised, just like the travel experience aboard a Eurostar train. When the time comes to take the photos for the cover of this issue, the Eurostar staff – again like the CIO – are relaxed, helpful and efficient. This isn’t the place for jobsworths and impersonal service: we glide through security checks, through the terminal and onto the platform which soon, it is hoped, trains will depart for cities further afield than the established destinations in France and Belgium.
“The ambition of the rail industry is to grow and to take business from the airline business,” he admits. “So we need to organise clever connections for the customer, so that the experience is more comfortable for the customer,” he says of the challenge Eurostar and major rail operators such as SNCF and Thalys face.
In this regard, Lemaire says Eurostar has one major ace up its sleeve – Lille. The northern French city is increasingly acting as a major hub for Eurostar services connecting customers with rail routes into northern Europe, across France and of course over to the UK. Eurostar already offers a direct service to Avignon in Provence in the summer from London and Lemaire says the company wants to get to the point where it offers more single-ticket journeys beyond Paris and Brussels.
“Some of our customers are managing the connections themselves, so we know that there is a market for us,” he says. “A lot of integration will be needed from all of us. It will take years to harmonise the systems. But what we feel is that the wind is blowing in our direction.
“The airline industry has been international from its early days, and has been growing around international standards. The rail industry background has always been a lot more ‘domestic’ with everyone finding their own solutions which were the best adapted to their context and their strategy. No one is right or wrong, but when you start connecting services, things necessarily become complex. Think that in France you must book your seat before travelling on a TGV, when in Germany most of the tickets are open. The airline industry is in a way lucky not to have to manage this heterogeneity and complexity.”
Eurostar won’t have carte blanche over this new connected Europe. With greater connectivity of Europe’s rail networks will come greater competition in the marketplace and a greater variety of rail liveries on the platforms of St Pancras and Paris’s Gare du Nord.
“Competition is something we know about. We are successful at the London-to-Paris route and we have 75 per cent of the market share in competition against the airlines, the tunnel and ferry services.,” says Lemaire.
“We are the only rail operator between Paris and London. Do we bet it will always be the case? No,” he says directly. “Some of our competitors such as Deutsche Bahn made it clear they wanted to compete and they bought their train to London. The question is: when will they start offering services? We are trying to guess the initial date. It was set for December 2013, but now they have pushed that back.”
But despite this delayed challenge, Lemaire is not complacent. He explains that while connecting the UK and Europe has become simpler with the tunnel, it is still a challenging new market for even well established firms to enter.
“It’s a complex business. There is a lot to organise and invest before you can run the first train as a competitor. In our case the need to run in the tunnel makes things even a bit more special. In all cases the competition will be governed by EU regulations which clearly define the rights and obligations of a new entrant and of the incumbent operator.
“Today we don’t want to be complacent,” he says of the need to not become overly focused on the future rivalry coming down the tracks. “We are in a strong position, but that also depends on the dynamics of the airline business.” Lemaire and the Eurostar management are clearly aware of the threat budget airlines pose to their business and of a consumer group that is so used to flying it treats air travel akin to flagging down a cab.
“One of the pillars of our future is to be a gateway to Europe and the UK and to offer a mix of travel solutions,” he says. I get the impression that like the airline industry, rail operators will compete for your ticket purchase, but will also have to collaborate closely to enable you to reach your destination by rail, rather than in the air or at the wheel of a car.