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The Lille Loophole – stop London checks on all except 3 trains

Lille-EuropeWhat is the Lille Loophole?
It is a means by which people without the correct identification papers necessary to enter the UK can do so thanks to a loophole in the Schengen rules, as applied at Gare du Midi in Brussels, and to the Eurostar rail service. News about the loophole here.

How does it work?
A passenger buys a ticket for the train between Bruxelles Midi and Lille Europe* (which is allowed) but instead of getting off in Lille, the passenger stays on the train and continues all the way to London St Pancras (not allowed). This is possible because both Belgium (Brussels) and France (Lille) are in Schengen, and hence passengers travelling between these two cities cannot be obliged to show a passport when boarding at Gare du Midi, Brussels, as the Schengen agreement has abolished border controls between the signatory countries. These Brussels-Lille passengers are allowed through a corridor that bypasses the UK Border Authority’s desks at Gare du Midi. Identification and visas allowing someone to be present in a Schengen zone country, and those to enter the UK, are different. Someone may be in Belgium legally, but this might not mean they could legally enter the UK.

What happened?
Previously when travelling from Brussels to London, or Lille to London, a passport check took place only in Brussels or Lille. As a result of travellers exploiting the loophole, UKBA has introduced extra passport checks upon arrival at St Pancras, and UKBA also stamps passengers’ tickets before boarding in Brussels. Sometimes there are also additional passport checks on board the train between Lille and Calais, performed by French railway police. The problem is the 300+ passengers disembarking a Eurostar at the same time at St Pancras can mean queues of up to 20 minutes to leave the terminal, and this can be worse still if two trains arrive at the same time. This means people in danger of not getting onward connections, and this makes Eurostar feel more like an airline with its queues than a rail service.

So what’s the solution?
The little known fact in all of this is that the Lille Loophole only actually applies to three trains each day on the Brussels – London route. These are trains 9133 (1256 departure), 9149 (1656 departure) and 9161 (1952 departure). All other Brussels – London trains, even if they stop at Lille, cannot be booked for Brussels – Lille. In other words, the 7 other Brussels – London trains** only pick up passengers in Lille, and hence no passenger on these trains can bypass the UKBA checks in Brussels.

I was a passenger on train 9157 (1856 departure) on Friday from Brussels to London, but was still subjected to passport checks in London (see my blog post prior to the journey here). Why, I asked the surly UKBA official at St Pancras are you even checking this train because it is not a Lille Loophole train? “It is!” she snarled back at me. “No, you cannot book Brussels – Lille tickets on this train” I pushed. “Do you think I do this job for fun?” was her retort.

Seriously though, is all of this not getting a bit absurd? It is only possible to check in for Eurostar at Gare du Midi once the previous train has departed, so there is not the danger someone accidentally can hang around and get on the wrong train. And that could anyway be solved with a ticket check on the train from a member of Eurostar staff, ensuring everyone was on the right train. A UKBA official I asked in Brussels implied that passengers could hide so as to exploit the loophole, by waiting around for later trains. Where could that possibly happen I wonder? In the loos in the Brussels terminal or something?

All of this then leads us back to a comparison of the Eurostar border with other borders. When you cross to the UK in a car on a ferry or in Eurotunnel not even your luggage is systematically checked. How hard would it be, I wonder, to stow yourself away in the boot of a car? Or on board a yacht sailing across to the UK from France?

As for Eurostar, from the situation where there was an obvious loophole, we now have completely the opposite situation – where even trains to which the loophole would not apply are subject to extra checks. While this is infuriating now, it might even kill the prospect of through Eurostar or DB services from other European cities in future, and damaging rail’s position vis à vis air is a highly undesirable outcome.

* – theoretically the same could be done at Calais Fréthun, but for the sake of simplicity I only refer to Lille in this blog entry.
** – Monday-Friday services. Full timetable here.

Photo: "Lille-Europe" by Mike Knell on March 4, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

25 Comments

  • JA |

    I agree that the current situation is not rational and that it is not a good use of limited UKBA resources. Surely the best option in the short term would be for Eurostar to cease selling Brussel to Lille tickets? I know this is not a popular option from the Belgian end but would seem to be the least worst compromise.

    A wider point as you mention is that the promised DB/Eurostar services to Amsterdam and Köln are looking less likely now. Certainly don’t have any inside information but I note that Eurostar are keeping rather quiet about the services. It will be interesting to see how the new direct service to Aix works out this summer (requires passengers to disembark in Lille for a passport check).

    It is a shame because I think direct services to Germany and the Netherlands could be economically viable if a workable/pragmatic solution to passport checks is found….

  • Leon S Kennedy |

    @JA

    I think it’s a bad taste joke to even suggest that the best solution would be for Eurostar to cease selling Brussels to Lille tickets. There ARE people willing to travel from Brussels to Lille, and if there are trains travelling from Brussels to London calling at Lille, it makes every sense from an economic perspective to try to sell Brussels-Lille tickets if those seats are vacant. Otherwise you would need to operate further seats for that itinerary while other trains are transporting air instead of passengers on that very same route.

    @Jon

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that those with an “Abonnement” Lille-Bruxelles may take any TGV or Eurostar between Lille and Brussels, including those trains that are technically blocked to passengers willing to buy a single ticket.

    Either way, the obvious solution for this would be for the UK (and the Republic) to join Schengen, instead of sending a fake message of security to the domestic public.

    Alternatively, I would change the treaties between the UK, France and Belgium and start transfer ALL border checks to the UK terminals: that is, both on departure and on arrival at London-St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford both the UKBA and Schengen controls would take place. I am surprised nobody has proposed this so far. That way, all trains could be considered as intra-Schengen and travel to ANY destination without the need to have any dedicated platforms in new Eurostar destinations.

    (that is, if they finally accepted that the probability of Eurostar being the target of a terrorist attack is not any higher than a bomb in the London Underground or in the Metro de Madrid, and hence also accepted to end the senseless luggage screening).

    The previously mentioned system of control used to be done (in the pre-Schengen times) in Geneva (tracks 7+8) and Basle (SNCF), where passengers embarking or disembarking to/from France-bound terminal (or starting) trains would have to go through both the French and Swiss border controls. The same happened with passengers using German trains (both through and/or terminal) at the Badischer Bahnhof (Baden Station) in Basle: to access the tracks, passengers would have to go through the Swiss and German border controls. That way, once on the platforms, passengers would already have cleared all border formalities, and could be considered as “domestic” passengers and travel freely through the German network without any further checks needed either on the trains or at the destination. (At least in theory, since border agents do still show up between Freiburg i.B. and Basle now with Schengen, as well as they used to before Schengen…). Here in the USA; it’s also what’s done on US-bound trains from Vancouver. Why couldn’t the same be done in cross-channel services?

    Applying the mentioned system of checks would provide huge advantages to everyone: on the one hand, both the British, French and Belgian governments would save on staff because only three border points would operate (St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford). On the other side, Eurostar or any other competition would be able to operate ANY services to continental Europe without the need to have stations refurbishing and allotting platforms just for UK-bound services. In busy stations such as Köln Hbf (Cologne Main Station) to even think of using one platform just for UK-bound services is pure madness. And finally, passengers would be able to stop having to show up 30 minutes in advance to catch their UK-bound trains in continental Europe, adding to smoother, faster, more reliable and more comfortable rail travel.

    London is one of Europe’s busiest destinations, and its 5 airports allow travel to literally any city in Europe. If this silly cross-channel passport and security controls issue were to be solved, it wouldn’t take very long until we see:

    London-Lille-Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Schiphol-Amsterdam
    London-Lille-Brussels-Cologne-Frankfurt Airport-Frankfurt Hbf
    London-Lille-Brussels-Cologne-Dusseldorf-Essen
    London-Calais-CDG Airport/Marne la Vallée-Lyon-Marseilles
    London-Calais-CDG Airport/Marne la Vallée-Geneva
    London-…-Strasbourg-Stuttgart
    London-…-Tours-Bordeaux-Toulouse
    London-…-Basle-Zurich Hbf
    London-…-Lyon-Montpellier-Barcelona

    All of those destinations could be reached within 5-6 hours. Which is the time it currently takes to travel from London to Scotland. Success would be granted.

    Not to mention endless combinations for direct night-trains (Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Milan, Rome, Prague…)

  • Leon S Kennedy |

    By the way, I was just checking the timetables to travel on any weekday from Brussels to Lille by train and the frequencies are extremely scarce. Allowing ALL Eurostar trains to be used would be the most logical thing to do. There are thousands of people commuting between those two cities, both workers and students, but because of super high train prices they take their cars or buses to join cities. These two cities are merely 110km apart from each other (30 mins by train), but it can easily take 1h45 minutes by car.

    I can imagine than hourly service would be viable and desirable.

  • sölkgöakgölak |

    Why can’t they just replace the passport check at the station with a passport check on board the train while it is moving, like the Helsinki-St. Petersburg line? That would speed things up a lot. Alternatively, skip the passport checks in Brussels and do both UK and Schengen checks on arrival in London.

    If you wish to enter the UK illegally, the obvious way is to use a private boat. No one will notice if a private boat stops in the middle of a forest.

  • Jon |

    @JA / @Leon – I agree that ceasing Brussels – Lille on Eurostar is not the solution. The way to solve it would be to find a way to get Brussels – Lille passengers to show their ID to UKBA at Brussels though, as is done with some flights (see para 4 of this section of Wikipedia. But I assume that solution has already been categorically ruled out.

    @JA – everyone is quiet on through services not only because of the border stuff, but because the trains that would be used by DB (class 407) and Eurostar (its new e320) are based on Siemens’s Velaro platform, and even getting the 407s running is proving a major headache – see all the notes on the Wikipedia page in German.

    @Leon – but how does an abonnement work? Because Eurostar is a compulsory reservation train – it is not possible to just turn up and get on it, because someone might have your seat. Do you know any Brussels – Lille regulars who would know?

    Your idea to move all UKBA controls to London / Ebbsfleet / Ashford – the problem is that the terminal at St Pancras is really small, and you get bunches of people off trains. Plus many Paris – London Eurostars are non-stop, and hence there are no checks in London for those.

    Through trains – yes, I agree. Although I do wonder whether Eurostar procuring 16-coach e320s was the right call. Is there demand for Geneva – London for so many people? But overall, in principle, I agree with you.

  • JA |

    @ Leon S Kennedy

    Thank you for your entirely positive and constructive response to my suggestion for how to respond to this situation in the short term.

    It is always nice to be reminded of how pleasant people can be to each other on the internet.

    JA

  • sjlkjglkajlga |

    I don’t know how an abonnement for French/Belgian travel works, but the Swedish railways sell a card called “SJ Årskort” (http://www.sj.se/arskort) which offers unlimited travel with the Swedish railways without the need to book a seat in advance even if reservations are supposed to be mandatory. Actually, I believe that there might be a statement in the fine print saying that you have to reserve a berth on night trains, but X2000 trains (which normally require a reservation) can certainly be used without reserving a seat, although I wouldn’t recommend travelling without a reservation if you are making a long trip.

  • Leon S Kennedy |

    @Jon

    You can find some information about the Lille-Brussels Abonnement online, but only on private websites (that is, not on SNCF, SNCB or RailEurope…). It is mentioned here for instance: http://www.lavoixeco.com/actualite/Secteurs_activites/Ferroviaire/2007/05/19/article_tgv_lille_europe_bruxelles_midi_la_ligne.shtml
    But there really isn’t much information online, other than that published by the “pendulaires” travelling from Lille to Brussels every day to work. They call this line “la ligne des oubliés” because they say they don’t exist for either SNCF, SNCB or Eurostar.

    Apparently the available Abonnement costs €230 per month and offers unlimited travel on any TGV and/or Eurostar (included “blocked” ones) between Lille and Brussels, BUT it requires a mandatory €3 seat reservation that can only be booked prior to departure at Lille Europe and Brussels Midi.

    Your proposal to have all passengers travelling between Brussels and Lille show their passports to the UKBA seems to have one major issue: a person with a Schengen visa but without a UK one would not be able to travel on trains between Brussels and Lille. And, since Schengen is not left at any moment, this is not acceptable.

    As for your concerns regarding direct services London-(…)-Geneva, I do certainly believe there is enough demand to run 4 trains a day, at least every 4 hours between both cities. It would be nice if Eurostar or SNCF provided statistics to obtain these numbers. I personally know more than a bunch of people that have already travelled from London to Geneva by train, although this is currently a hassle since it requires transfer from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord in Paris (true, not so hard to do, but if you are travellling with luggage, it is a pain in the ass, especially when compared to the hassle-free experience of just changing platforms at most major European rail hubs that can be accomplished within minutes).

    If you look for flights on any normal working day between Geneva and London Airports, you’ll see that there are around 30 planes per directions (BA, Swiss and Easyjet combined). Some of those flying BA might be using onward connections at Heathrow, but those flying Swiss and Easyjet are for the most part flying point-to-point (Swiss’ presence in GVA is testimonial compared to its magnificent Zurich hub, so there is few to connect to in Geneva).In my opinion, that is a clear indicator that a few direct trains between London and Geneva (calling at CDG / Marne la Vallée / Eurodisney / Calais) would definitely have enough passengers to make them economically viable.

  • french derek |

    I foresee that UKBA would object to having all Passport checks carried out in the UK. Passengers travelling in Schengen are deemed to be there legally. So, there would be no problems with illegal immigration when travelling between Schengen member countries. However, if someone arrives in the UK without proper visa or other entry requirements met, then they become “illegal” immigrants and would have to be processed through all that such a condition entails.

    From this perspective, it seems that some way has to be found that ensures that all passengers arriving in the UK – being previously checked – would be able to pass through UKBA freely.

    So far as air travel is concerned, I cannot understand why a UKBA check is necessary when You cannot board a direct flight to the UK without going through Passport control. Do the UKBA not trust European Passport controllers?

  • JorgeG |

    “Seriously though, is all of this not getting a bit absurd? ”

    Well, of course it is but you Jon I am sorry to say that you are contributing to the absurdity, because up to the point where you write that sentence you didn’t even question the absurdity of the UK rejecting to join the 21st century and stubbornly remaining in the 19th by not joining Schengen.

    It is purely infantile behaviour from the UK political establishment and frankly outright dubious from a mental health perspective to say on the one hand that they want to remain in the EU but on the other reject the most fundamental pillar of the EU, Schengen, the EU policy that gives practical meaning to the EU pillar of “an area of freedom, security and justice” and of the single market being an “area without internal frontiers”.

  • Jon |

    Jorge – sorry, but that’s a bit excessive! I have many times argued that the UK should join Schengen, but – in this blog entry at least – realise that this is not going to happen any time soon, and hence try to propose a solution to a particular problem. I cannot keep on banging on about the wider political question.

  • JorgeG |

    @ JA “It is a shame because I think direct services to Germany and the Netherlands could be economically viable if a workable/pragmatic solution to passport checks is found….”

    I would suggest one. Since the UK politicians, of whichever ruling party, are unable to grow up and join the 21st century, I would suggest they take a leaf out of the Stasi. Their border controls were far more civilised and enlightened than the ones that UKBA carries out 30 or 40 years later in an EU where freedom of movement supposedly exists.

    In my younger days I used to travel throughout Europe with inter-rail. Schengen as an EU pillar didn’t even exist at the time. I travelled to Berlin in the mid-eighties. At the first town in former East Germany the train stopped and the Stasi were lined up at the platform. They boarded the train and checked everyone’s passports. At a further East Germany town the train stopped, the Stasi disembarked and that was that. Needless to say they didn’t scan anything, as technology didn’t even exist at the time.

    Compare that with the nazi-style border controls that Jon describes here and these ones in the new Eurostar service from Aix en Provence:

    http://www.raileurope.co.uk/?tabid=1663

    “The inbound train stops in Lille to enable passport checks. You will need to alight the train, have your passport checked and then reboard the train. The train will arrive in Lille at 20.38 and depart at 22.04.”

    So 90 minutes stop to disembark the train with your luggage and queue for UKBA to scan your passport. Bring back the Stasi, please….

  • JorgeG |

    Jon, point taken, still while politics is about elevating hypocrisy into an art form, political changes happen by activists not giving up.

  • El Aura |

    Just to add how things were handled pre-Schengen at the Swiss-EU borders, in my personal experience, at least in the last 15 years: border police would enter the train one or two stops away from the border, walk through the train and ask maybe one or two persons in the whole train to show their papers. And I, personally, never had to show any ID, despite having crossed the Swiss border up to about 100 times in the last 15 years in a train. And sometimes I wouldn’t even see a single officer walking past me.

    And basically nothing changed after Switzerland joined Schengen, the authorities are still allowed to carry out some rolling controls in a 30 (20?) km zone along their borders, and just walking through the train by the border agents certainly falls into this category. Moreover, there are still officially custom controls as Switzerland only joined Schengen but not the custom union.

  • Jon |

    @El Aura – that was my experience when I used to cross into Switzerland at Basel in pre-Schengen times. But crossing from France at Geneva was a very different experience (and even today still is to a certain extent) – separate platforms, and having to march past border controllers and customs officials (previously), and just customs officials (now).

  • Ian Young |

    UKBA are just making a nuisance of themselves in Brussels. Around 12 years ago I seem to remember Kent police making efficient checks on board the Eurostar (as French police often do) without all this nonsense we now have to endure. Its not as if Brussels is a destination of choice for angry Daily Mail readers.

  • JorgeG |

    @ Ian Young

    Those were the days before Obsessive Border Control Disorder became endemic, together with the reactionary politics of New Labour which started to relentlessly build their database-state and, in this vein, one of their saddest contributions to the enlightenment of society was to build a ‘travel database’ whereby they would track all the movements into the UK, i.e. build a database with you and me in it every time we cross the UK border.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7877182.stm

    Because of that, the civilised version of border controls, where the legwork is done by the border police is a thing of the past in the UK, unless someone decides to equip the border police with portable scanners so that they can carry out border controls on board. Most unlikely, if not impossible. That would be far too progressive for the current state of British politics.

    Another possibility would be that the UK rolls back the (police) state and with it the database state and stop building police databases of entirely inocent people going about their daily business. Most unlikely as well.

    Another, even more remote, possibility would be for the UK to enter the 21st century and join Schengen.

  • Marion Masar |

    Hi, I have just learned about this today – the hard way. Arrived at St.Pancras from Brussels this morning. Was checked in BRU by UKBA, only to see a queue at St.Pancras again to be checked by UKBA again. And I must tell you – what a check it was – checked by surly official – I presented my EU passport and my wife her permanent residence card. ( I must have left tickets on the train, as I did not know there will be checks again. Where have you been? Brussels. How long? 3 days. What did you do 3 days in Brussels? Travelling. Question repeated. Answer repeated. Sightseeing. Aha, ok. How much cash you have with you? You live here? Where did you stay? Then passed us to another UKBA official to check our hotel bill.

    Woow…they are doing great job! Catching the right people. Amazing experience.

  • Ian Young |

    Marion Masar: “Where have you been? Brussels. How long? 3 days. What did you do 3 days in Brussels? Travelling. Question repeated. Answer repeated. Sightseeing. Aha, ok. How much cash you have with you? You live here? Where did you stay? Then passed us to another UKBA official to check our hotel bill.”

    I’m no legal expert on EU freedom of movement treaties but I’m wondering if the UKBA even have any legal right to demand an answer to these questions. You have shown your legal EU passport and have travelled from one EU country to another, that’s all they need to know.

  • Marion Masar |

    Hi Ian. There has been rapidly worsening trend in the behaviour of UKBA recently, particularly towards EU citizens. The only explanation to this may be the fact that there appears to be majority will of withdrawal (or partial withdrawal???) from the EU by the British people, their government and media. I think to start treating EU citizens like criminals is the start of this process.

  • jkgkalkgaölkgaö |

    You can’t take EST 9125 from Brussels to Lille, right? Well, see what I found:

    http://i.imgur.com/ESxM6k4.png

    You can book a “London-Spezial” ticket with a stopover in Lille at no extra cost! If you only go to Lille on 18 September, I would assume that UKBA can’t check your passport on 18 September. They can’t check your passport until 19 September when you go from Lille to London. This trick seems to work with all Eurostar trains.

  • Ken |

    @Jon
    Great blog. Glad I searched for the current status on the Lille loophole. Though I’ve learnt the hard way to always book a seat from Brussels so that I can get through border control at St Pancras as one of the first passengers, I’m rather annoyed with the constant train delays which rightly or wrongly are blamed on UK document checks (though I have to say that the Belgian side check is horribly badly thought through), and yesterday evening was no exception.
    Four things that don’t seem to find answers to in the comment trails are:
    - Why would I go through the UKBA border control in Brussels if I intended to enter the UK illegally? Why not use the Lille loophole? With all the passengers being checked in Brussels I wonder how many are stopped at that control and prevent from entering, and if them who are why wouldn’t they then use the Lille loophole if they decided to make a second attempt? That check appears rather pointless to me.
    - How is the validity of my passport related to my mode of entry (train, airplane, ship) and my travelling document? Do UKBA consider the validity of passport conditional upon proof that I have a paid for ticket? I would have thought that ticket control is outside the remit of their work,but they stamp my document with such vigour that I’ve assumed it is an task providing either great satisfaction to staff members or allows them to vent their frustration (my ex-wife was actually once threatened to be refused entry because she was arrogant to the border officer asking whether she could safely put her passport away or if they’d check it at St Pancras tube station as well, A fair question I would think since I bet UKBA would love to install security checks behind ticket barriers at all major London tube stations).
    - Do UKBA have any incentive to shorten queues or make the checks less painful? Evidence seem to point the other direction. The longer the queues and the more work the more important they appear to the general public and politicians. Risking to be split up from ever so often doesn’t seem to impact anybody negatively.

  • Kevim |

    They now appear to have closed this loophole by making a intra-schenken terminal at Brussels..

So, what do you think ?