This is a landmark year for international train operator Eurostar. On 13 November it will run its final service out of Waterloo station, switching to St Pancras International the next day. Several days later, a new station at Ebbsfleet, Kent, will open, replacing Ashford as a stop on the majority of services.
The new dedicated High Speed 1 line means journey times from London to Paris and Brussels will be cut by 20 minutes or more. Improved connectivity to St Pancras, especially from the North, is aimed at increasing appeal to UK travellers from outside the South East.
These operational changes bring huge communications challenges that the Eurostar PR team is working to address. The campaign began a year ahead of the station switch with a press conference last November to announce the date of the Waterloo to St Pancras move. National media have been targeted, so that the maximum number of people can be informed of the changes, and Eurostar’s own research indicates that public awareness is high.
Even more important to Eurostar is a customised local approach that seeks to explain to key stakeholders in various regions what the changes will mean. A five-month, 50-city UK tour to showcase the national benefits began on 8 May, with Eurostar reaching out to politicians, business leaders, community groups and local media, from Edinburgh to Brighton.
‘St Pancras looks as if it is going to be a wonderful addition to the rail network,’ says Tunde Olatunji, passenger link manager at independent consumer rail watchdog Passenger Focus. ‘But Eurostar has to communicate the changes effectively, namely that its Waterloo terminal is closing; that there will be a reduction in levels of service at Ashford; and what Ebbsfleet is all about – it’s not a place that many people will recognise. Eurostar will need to explain how to get there and promote that it’s off the M25 near Dartford.’
On the thorny issue of Ashford, which is to lose its current direct service to Brussels, Eurostar Group head of press and events Lesley Retallack says: ‘We had to get bad news out, but we were open and transparent about it.’
Research undertaken for Eurostar concluded that two thirds of people who currently use Ashford will find Ebbsfleet more convenient. The message from Eurostar is that in future there will not be sufficient numbers wanting to travel from Ashford to make current levels of service economically viable. Moreover, stopping at both Ashford and Ebbsfleet on the same journey would slow journey times to the disadvantage of the great majority of passengers.
What, though, of enigmatic Ebbsfleet? What is being done to sharpen up its identity and place it on the map?
Eurostar is promoting Ebbsfleet International as the fastest way to reach mainland Europe for a catchment of 10 million people, pointing out that the station is closer to the M25 motorway than any South East airport. In addition, passengers will be offered free travel on the Fastrack bus service that connects local stations to Ebbsfleet.
The station lies in an area known as Ebbsfleet Valley, one of Europe’s largest development sites, where over the next 20 years, 10,000 new homes and up to nine million sq ft of office, retail, leisure and community space will be delivered by developer Land Securities.
Conscious of the area’s low profile, Eurostar, track builder London & Continental Railways and Land Securities have launched a competition to create a new iconic landmark.
The competition will be managed by art agency Futurecity and a shortlist of international artists with a strong track record will be invited to make proposals. Local residents will be able to view the four shortlisted proposals at Ebbsfleet International before the end of the year. The hope is that the winning design will be chosen by spring 2008, and that the landmark will be complete before high-speed domestic rail services begin operating in Kent in 2009.
Eurostar is also reaching out to the local community. On 8 June, it announced a three-year sponsorship deal with local club Ebbsfleet United FC, formerly known as Gravesend & Northfleet FC. The sponsorship agreement, one of the largest in non-League football, will support the club’s new educational initiative, Playing for Success, as well as help to put the growing Ebbsfleet community on the national map.
The club, nicknamed ‘The Fleet’, had changed its name before the announcement but locals had long been aware of Eurostar’s desire to forge a relationship. Some diehard fans – especially those with tattoos bearing the old club name – were disgruntled, but most appear pleased that Eurostar’s financial muscle will give their team a boost.
‘I think the club had Eurostar in the bag before the name change,’ says Michael Adkins, Kentish Times Newspapers’ news editor for Gravesend and Dartford. ‘Some lifelong fans don’t want to see towns such as Dartford merged into Ebbsfleet, but many people are pleased that a good sponsor is getting behind the team. There’s not any great animosity towards Eurostar.’
At a wider level, Eurostar is looking to steal market share away from the airlines by positioning itself as a more environmentally friendly form of transport. ‘We’ll be the first rail operator to be carbon neutral,’ says Retallack. ‘Explaining our green credentials is a major part of our comms strategy.’
In April, Eurostar announced its intention to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 per cent by 2012 and unveiled its Tread Lightly Initiative, in terms of which it will cut consumption of raw materials, source more responsibly and recycle more waste. Independent research conducted last year found that a Eurostar journey between London and Paris/Brussels generates ten times less CO2 than flying.
The climate change debate is providing Eurostar with a platform on which to present itself as a greener alternative to short-haul air travel. This is likely to appeal to business travellers as well as the growing band of consumers eager to reduce their carbon footprint.
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