Train services from London to Europe could be set for a massive expansion as the decade goes on amid plans for new direct rail routes to Germany and Switzerland.
Swiss national railways (SBB) is working on a new five-hour service between St Pancras and Basel through the Channel Tunnel using Eurostar trains; while Spanish firm Evolyn wants to open a direct link to Frankfurt, Cologne, Zurich and Geneva.
These come amid a string of possible rival services to the Eurostar being planned, with Sir Richard Branson allegedly looking into Virgin operating the current route – and Dutch train start-up Heuro hoping to launch a rival service within the next five years.
Rail passengers travelling from London to Basel currently must make a laborious journey involving three trains that tends to take around six-and-a-half to seven hours.
They have to catch a Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord then travel by RER metro to the Gare de Lyon, from which they can take a TGV service to Basel.
But Swiss railway bosses hope the new route would involve just one train as well as a single check through security and passport control at the departing station. While there is no timescale on the project, SBB has confirmed the direct link is ‘possible’.
Plans for the London to Basel link were confirmed by Philipp Mader, SBB’s head of international passenger transport, at the Swiss Travel Association conference.
Speaking at the event in November, Mr Mader said: ‘As a long-distance destination, we are looking into a direct train from Switzerland to London, the most frequently flown city in Europe. Basel to London in around five hours, that’s possible.’
But he added that implementation would be tricky, saying: ‘The infrastructure is expensive on this route – partly because of the journey through the Eurotunnel.’
SBB is hoping to give passengers a viable alternative to flying between Britain and Switzerland, given there are dozens of daily flights between London and Swiss airports each day.
The idea of the London to Basel train link has gathered momentum after being proposed by Swiss politician Matthias Aebischer in March, who pointed out that it was important for travellers concerned about climate change.
He said at the time: ‘Many people today would like to travel climate neutral. But if they have to change trains several times for a train journey in Europe, they end up taking the plane after all.’
However, a major issue before the direct trains could run would be a redevelopment of Basel station given that security and passport control for travellers heading to London would now be similar to what is required at airports.
Mr Aebische has asked the Swiss Federal Council to work with France, Britain and Eurostar to establish whether the route can be achieved.
Eurostar currently runs trains from London to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam
Rail expert Mark Smith, founder of the international train guide Seat61.com, told MailOnline: ‘This would be a terrific service and would soon become popular, linking the UK with Switzerland overland.
‘However, the context is that Eurostar is concentrating on its core routes due to Brexit reducing passenger processing capacity at St Pancras.’
He also pointed out that the planned introduction in 2025 of the new Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) visa, which will require UK citizens to register ahead of travel to the European Union, ‘poses another risk’.
Mr Smith continued: ‘This year their (Eurostar’s) ski train is a connection off a normal London to Lille service, not a direct train as in previous years in spite of pressure from ski-related businesses in the French Alps.
‘The direct London to Marseille summer Eurostar has not resumed post-pandemic and the direct Eurostar to Disneyland Paris ceased in June this year.
‘So Eurostar themselves are unlikely to be keen on another non-core route, even if SBB is.
‘The logistical difficulties are significant: They need to find customs-secure stabling for the Eurostar train and a platform that can be cordoned off with covered space to check in passengers with security screening and border control. I would love this to happen, but I’m not holding my breath.’
There is plenty of capacity to increase services operating through the Channel Tunnel, with the tunnel’s owner and operator Getlink saying double the number of daily services between the UK and Europe could run.
But Eurostar currently appears to be focusing on its core routes to France, Belgium and the Netherlands – with only one stop remaining in the UK at St Pancras, after it stopped using the Kent stations at Ebbsfleet and Ashford during the pandemic.
Passengers at London St Pancras (pictured) could eventually use direct trains to Germany
A Eurostar spokesman told MailOnline: ‘It is encouraging to see interest from the Swiss national railway in expanding their international train route network.
‘We always monitor the potential for new routes, but our current focus is our extended network of European destinations following our union with Thalys.’
MailOnline has contacted SBB for comment.
Meanwhile Evolyn is buying 12 trains from French manufacturer Alstom, the maker of France’s iconic TGV train, for its planned high-speed rail service.
The firm’s £1billion investment in the project to run trains under the English Channel aims to challenge Eurostar’s monopoly on the route which it has held since 1994.
Evolyn hopes to start London to Paris trains from 2025 before building up to full operation by 2026 – and later extend direct services from the UK to other countries.
While these other destinations have not yet been confirmed, it is thought that they could include direct trains from London to Frankfurt, Cologne, Zurich and Geneva.
The move would make it far easier for Britons to travel beyond Belgium and Paris into Europe by rail, cutting out the need to change if heading to Germany or Switzerland.
Eurostar currently runs trains from London to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam – although services from the Netherlands to St Pancras will be suspended for six months from June next year.
After Thalys merged with Eurostar in May last year, Thalys-branded red and white trains are now disappearing and being rebranded as Eurostar across the extended network in Europe
The decision was announced in November by Dutch rail company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, which said Amsterdam Centraal will be unable to process cross-Channel passengers during a major renovation of the station.
Eurostar trains will therefore have to run empty on the route from Amsterdam via Rotterdam before picking up London-bound travellers in Brussels. It was initially feared direct services from the Netherlands would be suspended for almost a year.
Passengers wanting to travel from Amsterdam or Rotterdam to London by rail will be required to take a train to Brussels and change for a Eurostar service.
Direct Eurostar trains from London to the Netherlands will continue to operate.
There are currently four daily return services between London and Amsterdam via Brussels and Rotterdam. It is a key route for the operator as it challenges one of the busiest European markets for airlines.
But passenger numbers for services from Amsterdam are currently restricted due to limits on how many can pass through passport and security checks at the station.
Nederlandse Spoorwegen said that organisations involved in the renovation project investigated how services from Amsterdam could continue but found it would not be possible ‘despite all efforts’.
In 2011 there were reports that Deutsche Bahn wanted to start running services between London St Pancras and Brussels from 2013 which would then divide – with one half going to Amsterdam via Rotterdam and another to Frankfurt via Cologne.
While direct trains from London to Amsterdam via Rotterdam were eventually launched by Eurostar in April 2018, Deutsche Bahn has still not yet run services to London – and there are still no direct trains from London to Germany.
Sources at Eurostar confirmed to MailOnline earlier this year that there are currently no plans for it to run direct services to Germany or Switzerland from London.
However, the situation has changed slightly since Thalys merged with Eurostar in May 2022 – with Thalys-branded red and white trains now disappearing as of October and being rebranded as Eurostar across the extended network in Europe.
As part of this, Eurostar has aimed to make it easier for its customers to book to 28 locations now branded as ‘Eurostar’ destinations on its new website, including several German cities via Brussels.
Eurostar runs a lucrative business connecting London and mainland Europe via high-speed rail, having made a record core profit of €332million (£288million) for 2022.
The company said in June that its London-Netherlands route has seen passenger volumes more than double when compared to pre-pandemic levels.