The privately-funded mega project, which was unveiled by Margaret Thatcher and Francoise Mitterrand for the Channel Tunnel in the early 1980s, was touted as a triumph of capitalist capitalism.
Since 1994, when services began from London to Paris, the Tunnel has had a relative monopoly. Only one company – Eurostar — runs passenger trains.
is about to be changed.
Evolyn is a new company founded by a wealthy Spanish Family and backed by unknown investors. They promise to disrupt the rail market by offering a service that’s “competitively-priced”.
Experts agree that there is a market gap. It has been a long time since the Tunnel reached its full potential. Early forecasts predicted that 17-20 million passengers per year would use it, but in 2019, only 11 million people traveled on Eurostar.
It will be much easier to challenge the Eurostar than it is to actually do so. Evolyn has a long list of obstacles to overcome, from obtaining regulatory approvals to procuring trains.
This month, the business made a splash when it announced that they had reached an agreement with French company Alstom for 12 high-speed trains to begin operating from Europe to the UK as early as 2025.
Evolyn chief executive Jorge Cosmen said that the acquisition was a “definitive” step for the new rail operator.
Alstom, however, rebutted Cosmen’s claim just a few days later by stating that there has not yet been a deal reached.
Evolyn’s chaotic launch has raised doubts as to whether it can deliver on its promise of launching in two years.
Mark Smith, a travel journalist and rail enthusiast known as “Man in Seat 61”, said: “They are obviously serious. They have financial backing.”
“But I am fairly certain, and most commentators agree with me that this won’t be done by 2025.”
Evolyn has only been in existence for a year. Felipe and Amalia, Jorge’s siblings, are its directors.
The Cosmens is a very private family in Spain that rarely gives interviews.
Their wealth dates back to the 18th Century when they began running horse-drawn wagons in Asturias (a region of north-west Spain). This venture grew into a transportation business.
In Oviedo, a street is named for Jorge’s father Pepe. Pepe was the patriarch who grew the family bus company into a major operator in Europe and South America, as well as in China.
The Cosmens, who had a Madrid-based company called Alsa at the time, sold it in 2005 for a stake and £149m in the London listed company.
Speculations arose after the merger that Cosmens hoped to dominate UK transport. Their decision to take on Eurostar may be the first time that they have risen above the parapet.
Jorge Cosmen who manages the family’s daily affairs along with Evolyn declined to be interviewed. He studied in France, then attended a business college in London. He has also served as the deputy chairman of Mobico and is currently on its board.
Evolyn also claims that, in addition to the Cosmens’ backing, it has secured support from other French and British partners including industrialists, investment funds and railway professionals, as well interest from financiers.
It is closely guarded that the identities of those who have backed it are kept secret. A spokesman was asked if they included a famous British billionaire. He replied: “At this time, we cannot confirm or deny the names of Evolyn’s investors.”
There is one thing for sure: they will need to have deep pockets.
Even if Evolyn is able to raise the funds it needs, the company will still have to overcome formidable regulatory hurdles that have in the past thwarted would-be Eurostar competitors.
The trains that travel from London to Paris need to get three regulatory approvals. They can run on the HS1 route from London to Kent and through the Tunnel, then continue on French tracks on the other side to Paris.
Eurostar uses two of the few train types that have been approved. The Tunnel’s requirements are particularly strict in terms of fire prevention.
Alstom Avelia trains are not included on the list. However, SNCF, France’s state railway company, is currently testing a similar model.
Evolyn is interested in trains with both a single-decker format and a double-decker format. This could give the company an option to run trains with a higher capacity than its current rival.
Jon Worth, an independent railway consultant, believes Evolyn could do well by opting for a service “styled after Ryanair”, which focuses on transporting the maximum number passengers at low-cost rates.
He also has some doubts regarding the current project timeline.
Worth says that you would have to order new trains and get them approved for the Tunnel.
“It’s not impossible, but it will take years to design and construct a train. Even if you get a contract today, it isn’t a guarantee that you can have the train running by 2025.”
The German company Deutsche Bahn was one of only a few that had its InterCity Express trains approved.
The company ran a dry-run to St Pancras station in 2010, but more than 10 years later, the hopes for a London to Frankfurt service are now a distant memory.
Spanish State Rail giant Renfeannounced that it was considering running its own service between London to Paris, but this has yet to be approved.
On the rails, there is plenty of space for additional services. Evolyn, and other competitors, face problems with the capacity of train stations.
Eurostar has been wanting to expand but is restricted by the limited capacity of departure lounges at St Pancras, and Gare du nord.
Having separate queues for passports after Brexit has caused delays, and many Eurostar trains have left with only a few passengers.
It will be a good thing for customers if these obstacles can be overcome, and a competing service is launched.
Yann Leriche is the chief executive officer of GetLink which owns The Tunnel. He says that fees and ticket prices would be reduced if fixed costs for running the Tunnel could be shared by more operators.
He says, “It’s a virtuous cycle… good for the customer and good for the planet.”
If the Cosmens can keep their plan on track, it will be a good thing for them.