A German high-speed train will visit Britain for the first time next month on a dry run for a direct rail service between London and Frankfurt.
The 200mph train operated by Germany's state railway company, Deutsche Bahn (DB), will pull into the capital's flagship St Pancras International terminal on 19 October after a maiden cross-channel voyage that challenges one of Europe's busiest aviation markets.
The state-of-the-art, German-made Inter City Express (ICE) 3 train must pass stringent tunnel safety tests before it can start full services from Frankfurt, with December 2013 the likely start date.
But rail experts expect it to open up Britain to a new market for rail travel and put downward pressure on Eurostar fares.
"Work has already commenced with safety, infrastructure and regulatory bodies across Europe in order to meet all the requirements necessary to operate these trains. As part of this work we will hold a safety exercise with an ICE train in the Channel tunnel on 19 October, showing the train subsequently the same day in London St Pancras."
Eurostar, the Paris and Brussels service that operates from St Pancras, has been a success since its 1994 debut, now carrying more than 9 million passengers and taking three-quarters of the air and rail market between London and the French and Belgian capitals.
DB is considering a route that would start in Frankfurt – the heart of Germany's finance industry – with possible stops at Cologne and Brussels en route to London. The service is expected to grow the high-speed rail market between London and the continent by around 10%, carrying more than 1 million passengers per year.
Chris Cheek, a rail industry analyst, said the move would further reinforce the case for long-distance train travel at the expense of the aeroplane.
"It will increase the size of the high-speed rail market between London and Europe and the main source of the traffic will be diversion from the air, " he said.
A spokeswoman for Eurostar was sanguine about the potential competitive threat to her company. "It will be very good news because ultimately it will grow the market."
Asked if a new entrant would benefit passengers on the Brussels route, who currently pay as little as £69 for a standard return but could hope for even lower prices, she said: "Of course we would compete very energetically with any rail competition."
Despite the threat of a new rail entrant, Eurostar believes that the competitive threat from low-cost airlines such as Ryanair already holds down cross-channel rail fares.
However, a London-to-Frankfurt train service will also stretch the industry maxim that rail journeys must last no longer than four hours in order to compete with airlines.
A trip between Europe's two largest financial centres would take four to five hours, with DB hoping that the appeal of broadband access and lack of airport security hassle will tempt the all-important business traveller market.
A spokesman for High Speed One, the owner and operator of the Channel tunnel rail link, said the service could use the high-speed terminal at Stratford in east London to tap the business market at Canary Wharf and in the City.
"Stopping patterns for any Frankfurt-to-London route are not confirmed but post-Olympics there will be an even more compelling case for international services to start using Stratford International – not just leisure passengers but also business travellers, given the close onward connections."
Channel tunnel safety authorities have already relaxed regulations that will make it easier for DB to operate a London-to-Frankfurt service.
The ICE3 train will have to be 375m long in order to allow its rear and front doors to connect with emergency exits in the train tunnels that connect with the central service tunnel which is used in the event of emergency evacuations.
The exits are spaced 375m apart, hence the requirement for trains of that length. Because the DB train will be formed by two locomotives bolted together, and passengers cannot therefore travel through length of the train, the company must prove that it can evacuate people from either end without serious problems.
Richard Clifton, head of the UK delegation to the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority (CTSA), said DB had to prove that the different configuration of its train would not hinder an evacuation. There have been three fires in the tunnel since it opened in 1994.
"It is up to Deutsche Bahn to produce some proposals as to how to evacuate the train. They [DB] need to demonstrate an evacuation system from a shorter train, or one that does not have a through-corridor, which does not diminish the level of safety, " he said.
Faster than flying
For decades, three hours has been seen as the magic number, the journey time at which train travel becomes faster than flying on a centre-to-centre basis. But with stricter and more time-consuming airport security, plus frequent air traffic delays, that magic three hours is stretching. So much so, that Guillaume Pepy, CEO of SNCF (French national railways) has stated that this three hours has become four or perhaps five.
He cites Paris-Perpignan, where SNCF's high-speed TGV takes five hours, yet where rail has captured 50% of the market.
It's not only journey time that's important. European high-speed trains typically achieve punctuality of 90-95% on time or within 15 minutes, whereas European airlines struggle to reach 63-68%. And with WiFi and power sockets for laptops, a train journey is often more productive.
As air travel gets slower, rail gets faster. New high-speed lines have made rail a serious player on routes such as Paris-Amsterdam (3 hrs 20 minutes), Paris-Frankfurt (3 hrs 55 minutes), Barcelona-Madrid (2 hrs 40 minutes) and Milan-Rome (3 hrs).