07 June 2005

Eurotunnel - can they dig themselves out of a hole?

I feel really sorry for Eurotunnel, and mystified about their predicament (they are struggling to keep up payments on their loans). The whole gargantuan project seemed so obviously the right thing to do all those years ago; a permanent, fast connection with the continent un-affected for the first time in all our history by the weather. How could it not work?

Nobody anticipated how cut-throat competition from the ferries and the spectacular growth of budget airlines would take customers away from the tunnel in their droves... but it has. Something like two thirds of short sea Channel crossing traffic still goes by ferry and Eurotunnel's figures have been declining for several years now. I still can't quite believe it. (Eurostar has been doing ok, but we're talking 'Eurotunnel' here, which operates the tunnel itself and the car/lorry shuttles)

I should have seen the writing on the wall a few months after the tunnel opened. The whole idea of the tunnel was that it should be a simple shuttle operation: you drive into the terminal and onto the next departing train. But oh no. Mr & Mrs British holiday-maker, after a lifetime of being made to queue for everything and generally being treated like children rather than paying customers (anyone remember flying with British Airways in the 70s & 80s?), couldn't get their heads round that and insisted on being able to pre-book themselves onto a specific train! So Eurotunnel had to introduce a reservations system!

Still, nobody would want to cross the channel, taking up to three times as long to get there, on a potentially vomit-inducing ship that might or might not make the crossing if the 1) wind wasn't right 2) sea wasn't right 3) engines weren't right, or more likely 4) the French fishermen were blocking Calais. Would they?

Well,apparently 'yes'!

In fact, when my family and our friends (two families travelling together) go for our hols in France, we all have to go on the ferry.... because one of our party doesn't like tunnels!

Today, hoping to claw back some customers from the ferries (though obviously not us!), Eurotunnel have announced price cuts of their own. They are introducing a budget airlines pricing structure with low lead-in fares that get sold first leaving the higher fares for those booking closer to departure.

Let's hope it works.





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