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Eurostar bailout: France prepared to help struggling train operator, says transport minister

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In this Dec.21, 2020 file photo, an information board is displayed at Gare du Nord train station in Paris.
In this Dec.21, 2020 file photo, an information board is displayed at Gare du Nord train station in Paris.   -   Copyright  Lewis Joly/AP
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The French government is prepared to help train operator Eurostar, transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Thursday.

The firm, whose services connect France and the UK, but also run to Belgium and the Netherlands, has been left in dire financial straits due to Brexit and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on travel.

"The state will be present alongside Eurostar in order to maintain this strategic link between our two countries," Djebbari announced at a parliamentary hearing.

"We are in the process of working with the British on aid mechanisms for Eurostar proportionate to the involvement of each party, so as to ensure the financial sustainability of the company's business model," he added.

Djebbari said that he and his British counterpart, Grant Shapps, had been discussing the matter "for many weeks".

The UK's Department for Transport told Euronews there was currently no agreement in place but added it continued to discuss Eurostar’s financial situation with the French government.

Eurostar has warned it faces bankruptcy at the end of spring if the British and French governments did not come to its rescue.

Jean-Pierre Farandou, the CEO of SNCF, France's state railway company, which owns 55% of Eurostar, told France Inter radio on Tuesday that “the situation is very critical for Eurostar”.

Passenger numbers on the cross-channel train service have been down 95% since March and are currently believed to be less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.

It comes days after UK business leaders called for a British government rescue of Eurostar.

The company 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.

While the company is majority-owned by a French public organisation and is therefore seen in the UK as French, many across the channel consider it British as it is based in London, which in turn has meant it hasn't received any direct aid or loans from either state.

The issue of a bailout by the UK is compounded by the fact that the UK government sold its stake in Eurostar in 2015.

"Disaster is possible," its managing director Jacques Damas told AFP on Monday, noting that turnover had fallen by 82% last year and that the situation had worsened further since the start of 2021.

Eurostar has done everything possible to reduce its costs and has borrowed €450 million, he said, adding its shareholders, who contributed €220 million, can do little more.

The company is hoping for coordinated efforts from the four countries it serves to help it get back on track, according to Damas.