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(Bloomberg) -- Eurostar International Ltd. said it’s seeing strong demand for seats on a new train service that will push the boundaries of long-distance rail travel from London by linking the U.K. capital directly to the Mediterranean.
Sales on the 1,235-kilometer (767-mile) route from London St. Pancras station are “off to a cracking start,” with buoyant bookings to stops at Lyon and Avignon and higher-than- than-expected interest in the full six-hour trip to Marseille, Chief Executive Officer Nicolas Petrovic said in an interview.
Eurostar will commence year-round operations to the French Riviera from May 1 as it expands beyond core routes linking London with Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. A service to Rotterdam and Amsterdam will follow in 2016, aided by the delivery of 17 Siemens AG e320 trains starting later this year.
The level of demand on the Mediterranean route -- with ticket sales strong in May and June and into July even though Eurostar has yet to start an advertising campaign -- indicates “the growing appetite among passengers for choosing rail over plane for travel further into mainland Europe,” Petrovic said.
Eurostar, which previously operated a summer-only train to Avignon, is investing “a few million euros” in an upgrade of Lille station in northern France where passengers traveling north to London will clear immigration and security controls.
The work will reduce the wait to about an hour, according to Petrovic, who said the arrangement will be essentially time- neutral as people will be able to arrive later for the train than normal at Marseilles and its other pickup points.
Eurostar is also adding indirect routes in France via links to state railway SNCF and in Germany with Deutsche Bahn AG, changing in Brussels, while a London-Geneva route where people transfer to Swiss Lyria trains in Lille is now year-round.
The company’s first 10 e320 trains, ordered in 2010, have all been built at the Siemens rail factory in Krefeld, Germany, with safety certification scheduled to begin shortly and span most of the rest of the year, the CEO said.
A further batch of seven of the 900-seat, 200 mile-an-hour expresses ordered last November will commence manufacturing later this year with service entry in 2016 and 2017, he said.
Eurostar’s passenger tally rose 3 percent to 10.4 million in 2014, it said today, while revenue increased by 1 percent to 867 million pounds ($1.33 billion), clipped by exchange rates.
Operating profit advanced 2 percent to 55 million pounds, excluding non-cash charges for the accelerated depreciation of the existing train fleet following the top-up e320 order.
The financial performance was underpinned by a strong recovery in the U.K. economy reflected by a 4 percent increase in the number of business travelers, Petrovic said, adding that he’s looking for an upturn in the generally “dull and timid” French travel market this year.
The CEO said that he spoke directly with Jacques Gounon, his counterpart at Channel Tunnel operator Groupe Eurotunnel SE, in the wake of last month’s fire inside the 30-mile subsea link to express his concern about the handling of the incident.
While the blaze involving a truck on a Eurotunnel vehicle shuttle was probably dealt with more effectively than after the last major fire in 2008, “the restart was painful,” he said, with overhead wires failing twice and passengers subjected to a “stop-go” procedure that lacked any transparency.
Eurostar will have to pay compensation to tens of thousands of passengers and has no recourse to claim back the money under laws Petrovic said are detrimental to train operators.
--With assistance from Francine Lacqua and Guy Johnson in London.
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