Unions Criticise UK's £757m Eurostar Sell-Off

A high-speed Eurostar train leaves the Channel tunnel near the Eurotunnel terminal of Coquelles near Calais, northern France, July 1, 2010. Pascal Rossignol/REUTERS

The UK's decision to sell off its 40% stake in channel tunnel rail operator Eurostar has prompted harsh criticism from the country's trade unions.

British chancellor George Osborne today announced a £757 million deal that would see Patina Rail, a Canadian-led consortium, privatise the UK government's stake in the railway.

The consortium is made up of CDPQ, a pension and insurance fund investor based in Quebec, and UK-based Hermes Infrastructure. The former will own 30% of Eurostar and the latter 10%.

The other 60% remains publicly owned, with French rail company SNCF holding 55% and Belgium's SNCB holding 5%.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is a British transport trade union with more than 80,000 workers. General secretary Mick Cash said of the sale: "The Eurostar sell-off is a gross act of betrayal of the British people by a right wing government hell bent on selling off the family silver regardless of the real cost. The French and Belgians think we are insane knocking off such a valuable and strategic infrastructure asset."

The stake sold for £585m, almost double the original estimate of £300m when the UK government initially called for bidders last October. The Financial Times reported that there were at least 20 expressions of interest in the train operator.

Osborne told the BBC: "This is a very good deal – it means we can cut the national debt, it means we can invest in our national infrastructure and it's fantastic value for British taxpayers. It's all part of our long-term plan to secure Britain's future."

The decision comes less than a week after another of the UK's rail lines, the East Coast line, was privatised after five years of state ownership.

Another trade union, the Transport Salaried Staff's Association (TSSA), which represents 30,000 transport workers in the UK, also criticised the decision. Union leader Manuel Cortes said: "The reason that France and Belgium already own the majority stake in the Eurostar is that they believe in running a publicly owned railway for the benefit of everybody. One-eyed [George] Osborne, on the other hand, prefers the private British model where fat cat bosses are at the front of the queue, way ahead of the passengers."

A spokesman for the SNCB says that they were informed of the UK government's decision and was "closely involved in the whole of the process".

"It is the responsibility of the British government to select the winning consortium. The move does not change anything for the SNCB nor for the client."

Eurostar recently reported a 3% increase in passenger numbers to 10.4 million in 2014 from 10.1 million in 2013. In total, more than 150 million passengers have used the service since it was established in 1994. The high-speed rail operator also announced plans to invest more than £1 billion in a new fleet of passenger trains capable of speeds of 200 mph (320 kph).

The SNCF have yet to respond to a request for comment.