"There is a lot of ambition to connect the rail services in Europe," says Christophe Lemaire, CIO of the rail operator that originally connected London to the rest of Europe -- Eurostar. Europe's currency and community is having a tough time at present. This is creating hyperbole of currency and community collapse, but a discussion with Lemaire reminds me how integrated our European lives have become and how the business community has hardly left the platform of European possibilities.
I meet Lemaire in a room at the London headquarters of Eurostar, just the other side of King's Cross station and within easy walking distance of the Eurostar's stunning new London terminus at St Pancras International. Each meeting room is named after a Eurostar destination and decorated accordingly, and ours is adorned with stylish modern pictures of Paris. The modernity of it and the CIO I'm interviewing tell you a great deal about Europe today, its business leaders and bold vision. The meeting room is quiet, spacious, calm and organised, just like the travel experience aboard a Eurostar train. When the time comes to take the photos for the cover of this issue, the Eurostar staff -- again like the CIO -- are relaxed, helpful and efficient. This isn't the place for jobsworths and impersonal service: we glide through security checks, through the terminal and onto the platform which soon, it is hoped, trains will depart for cities further afield than the established destinations in France and Belgium.
"The ambition of the rail industry is to grow and to take business from the airline business," he admits. "So we need to organise clever connections for the customer, so that the experience is more comfortable for the customer," he says of the challenge Eurostar and major rail operators such as SNCF and Thalys face.
In this regard, Lemaire says Eurostar has one major ace up its sleeve -- Lille. The northern French city is increasingly acting as a major hub for Eurostar services connecting customers with rail routes into northern Europe, across France and of course over to the UK. Eurostar already offers a direct service to Avignon in Provence in the summer from London and Lemaire says the company wants to get to the point where it offers more single-ticket journeys beyond Paris and Brussels.
"Some of our customers are managing the connections themselves, so we know that there is a market for us," he says. "A lot of integration will be needed from all of us. It will take years to harmonise the systems. But what we feel is that the wind is blowing in our direction.
"The airline industry has been international from its early days, and has been growing around international standards. The rail industry background has always been a lot more 'domestic' with everyone finding their own solutions which were the best adapted to their context and their strategy. No one is right or wrong, but when you start connecting services, things necessarily become complex. Think that in France you must book your seat before travelling on a TGV, when in Germany most of the tickets are open. The airline industry is in a way lucky not to have to manage this heterogeneity and complexity."
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