Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

No, really. Is this a joke?

Posted in Customer service, Europe, Great Britain, High Speed, Politics by Chairman Pip on 8 December 2011

A story was publicised on the BBC yesterday in regards to the use of Eurostar. Most of you will probably be aware that two of the countries in which Eurostar operates, France and Belgium, are part of the Schengen Area, which is a group of 25 EU and non-EU nations that have signed an agreement to eliminate border controls within the area. The United Kingdom is not a member, and thus has retained border control checks even for citizens of other EU nations (which is the reason why Eurostar operates from physically separated platforms at the stations it serves). However, to make Eurostar less like the airlines, border controls by the UK Border Agency (or its French equivilent for trains from London) are undertaken at the point of departure rather than the point of arrival. It’s this that has caused the problem raised in the BBC story, a problem that was apparently first noticed back in 2001.

Although Eurostar is a high-speed intercity operator, it still has some intermediate stops between its three main termini, of which the main one is Lille-Europe. This station is one of two located in the centre of the city of Lille, providing access to the rest of the TGV network, as well as local services in the Nord Pas-de-Calais and Picardie regions, and is more of a significant hub than its “equivilent” in Britain, Ashford International. Because of the Schengen Area, it is possible to travel from Brussels to Lille without having a passport check. It is this that has been exposed as the so called “Lille Loophole”; passengers boarding a train at Bruxelles-Midi can purchase a ticket for Lille and not have a passport check, and then simply not get off the train at Lille and instead continue straight through to London St Pancras, thus able to enter the United Kingdom illegally (as there are no further checks). This is clearly a problem that the UK Border Agency recognises, because its staff based in Brussels have attempted to deal with it. But the problem is compounded by the Schengen scenario – the BBC story describes the experience of questioning a pair of Iranians at Bruxelles-Midi, who apparently had “all the hallmarks of Lille Loopholers”, before an intervention by officers of the Belgian Federal Police, one of whom is supposed to have said:

This has got to stop. You are not in Britain now, you are in Schengen. If they make a complaint you will be arrested

You see the problem. Here is a situation where law enforcement officials of one country are being threatened with arrest by law enforcement officials of another country for doing their job, and trying to ensure only those that are entitled to enter the United Kingdom. And yet, the thing I don’t understand is how are these people able to get through at St Pancras if they only have tickets for Lille? While there may not be passport checks after passengers board the train, surely there are ticket checks? I speak having never travelled on Eurostar before, and so do not know what the arrangements for the checking of passengers’ tickets are, but I would have thought there would have been some method of checking them on boarding the train, and checking them on leaving the train. And if there are passengers attempting to get past ticket checks at St Pancras with tickets marked for Lille, why aren’t they being pulled aside, detained and put on the first train back to France? Fare evasion is a crime on Britain’s railways, so surely it must also be a crime on Eurostar as well.

So what can be done? The Home Office is “aware” of the situation, but says that it cannot be resolved by Britain alone, as it also involves Belgium. The British Ambassador to Belgium has also “raised the concerns of the UKBA” with the Belgian Justice Minister. And yet, there are surely things that could be done that do not need bilateral or multilateral intergovernmental communication. Rigourous ticket checks would obviously be one way. Eliminating Lille as an intermediate stop for Eurostar services would be another, especially given that there are already TGV services between Brussels and Lille. Seeing that the House of Lords, in a debate on the use of the Channel Tunnel, have criticised the amount of use the route has at the moment and called for increased services, then there seems no reason why services from the UK to Lille could not be turned over to another operator.

One thing that this situation shows is the difficulty of running commuter services between Britain and France, as has been suggested through the Transmanche Metro idea, as well as the need for serious planning and station remodelling at those locations Deutsche Bahn intend serving from London. While obviously I am very much pro running trains between London and mainland Europe, the situation also raises questions about whether operating such services is possible when countries have different ways of controlling who precisely crosses their borders.

“‘Lille loophole’ allows entry to UK by rail”
“UK border staff in arrest threat over ‘Lille loophole'”
“Peers call for better Channel Tunnel rail services”

Edit – After I wrote this, I received a helpful tweet that said the following:

Re ticket checks on Eurostar. Only checks are at boarding points at SPI & Gare Du Nord.-No on-train checks & none on arrival.

There you have it. Not just illegal immigration, but also fare evasion is possible on Eurostar, because there are no ticket checks on arrival. Therefore, the obvious way to close the “Lille Loophole” is for Eurostar to start ticket checks at both ends. This violates no EU agreement, as it would not be a passport check, merely ensuring that the people on the train have paid the correct fare, and anyone that hasn’t can be taken aside to have a word with the police and the immigration officials to determine precisely why they have entered on an invalid ticket.

A Eurostar Class 373 arrives at Gare de Lille Europe - Lille is something of a headache for the UKBA as people can exploit the Schengen Agreement and enter the UK illegally. But surely there are relatively simple ways to close this loophole without the need for high level govvernmental interaction.

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4 Responses

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  1. wobsy said, on 8 December 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Good post.
    You’d think it was an obvious weak spot to those who designed the security system. A similar problem may exist for transferring passengers on airlines. If you check in luggage at a minor non-international airport and then fly to say Heathrow and then on to say New York, your luggage never goes through a proper security check. There is no check that you even get on the New York plane. So you could, in theory, put a bomb on a New York plane by checking it in at an airport in the Hebrides and accompanying it only as far as London.
    Scary stuff!
    Rob.

  2. Colin McLeod said, on 12 December 2011 at 12:32 pm

    The simple answer is for the UK to catch up with the rest of Europe and stop their very silly checks.

    • Chairman Pip said, on 12 December 2011 at 12:37 pm

      And have whoever you like swanning in at will? Not really likely is it.

      In any case, it’s still fare evasion, and last time I checked that was illegal.

  3. […] here nor there. The question, which is valid, is what does the government propose doing about it? I suggested that, while the French and Belgian governments might oppose passport checks due to their both […]


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