The head of France’s state rail company has sounded the alarm over the future of Eurostar.
The cross-Channel train service has been hurt badly by a lack of travel during the coronavirus pandemic as well as Brexit.
Jean-Pierre Farandou, the CEO of SNCF, which owns 55% of Eurostar, told France Inter radio that “the situation is very critical for Eurostar”.
Passenger numbers on the service that reaches the UK, France, Belgium and Holland have been down by 95% since March and are currently believed to be less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.
The warning comes days after UK business leaders called for a Government rescue of the Channel Tunnel rail operator as border closures enforced to stop a highly contagious virus variant threatened to push the service towards the brink of collapse.
Mr Farandou said: “Today, there is one round trip that runs between London and Paris, and one other that runs between London and Brussels-Amsterdam. And these trains are 10% full.”
Mr Farandou is counting on government aid, which was provided for airlines, but is aware of how difficult it will be because there are multiple governments involved.
He said: “We have to see how we manage to help this company in the way that airlines have been helped. It would not be unusual for Eurostar to receive aid to get through this bad patch.”
He added that SNCF has “already put money back into Eurostar’s capital to help” and the company is in discussions with the French and UK governments.
Eurostar has asked for access to the same secured loans as airlines and a temporary reduction on track access charges it pays to use the UK’s only stretch of high-speed rail line.
It said in a statement that its situation was “very serious”. It said: “Without additional funding from government there is a real risk to the survival of Eurostar, the green gateway to Europe.”
Eurostar CEO Jacques Damas has also said the company hopes the four countries it serves will co-ordinate regarding virus-linked restrictions on travel.
In November, Mr Damas wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak asking for assistance after the Treasury announced it would help struggling airports.
British businesses have appealed to the Government to prop up Eurostar.
London First, which represents scores of large property, retail and tourism businesses in the capital, wrote to the Government over the weekend urging it not to let Eurostar “fall between the cracks of support” offered to airlines and domestic railways.
The letter said: “Maintaining this international high-speed rail connection into the heart of London has never been more important. Having left the European Union, we need to actively set out our stall as an attractive destination for people to live, work and play.
“Safeguarding the future of this connection to the continent should be a symbol of both our desire to build back better and our new co-operative relationship with our European neighbours.”
The Department for Transport said it recognised “the significant financial challenges” Eurostar faced because of the pandemic.
It said: “We will continue to work closely with them as we support the safe restart and recovery of international travel.”