High-Speed Train to Trouble French, Germans Lock Horns over Channel Tunnel

Since the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, the only high-speed trains meeting the strict regulations for operating in it were made by France's Alstom. Those regulations might now be relaxed, giving Germany's Siemens a chance to put its trains on the line.

dpa

Oct. 19, 2010 might just go down as a key date in the history of European rail travel. For it was on that day that the end to a 15-year monopoly was heralded.

Early that morning, one of the high-speed InterCityExpress (ICE) trains built by the German engineering giant Siemens arrived on Track 5 of London's storied St. Pancras Station. The station is one end of the railway line connecting continental Europe with Great Britain via the Channel Tunnel. And the trains pulling into the station after running this segment are usually only extra-long TGV trains manufactured by France's Alstom and operated by SNCF, France's national railway company.

With a string quartet playing in the background, German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer and Rüdiger Grube, the CEO of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway operator, welcomed the train into the London station. They celebrated the event as a "first milestone" and "tremendous step forward" in the effort toward establishing a direct Frankfurt-London connection passing under the English Channel by 2013. As things now stand, passengers traveling from Germany to Britain have to change trains in Brussels before continuing on to London through the Channel Tunnel. If the direct connection goes into operation it could cut travel times from Frankfurt to London to five hours and to only four hours from Cologne.

But while the Germans were celebrating, a veritable commotion was brewing in a nearby courthouse.

Rule Change Could Break French Monopoly

In early October, Eurostar -- the international consortium including British, French and Belgian railways that controls traffic through the Channel Tunnel -- announced that it would seek to acquire 10 of the Siemens ICE trains to replace the Alstom-manufactured ones it has been using for the high-speed connection. In response, the French company has filed suit against the contract tender, arguing that the Siemens train does not meet all the strict safety requirements for trains operating in the Channel Tunnel. Alstom's executives apparently aren't all that concerned with the fact that there were already suggestions in March to ease the restrictions and that, last weekend, the ICE successfully passed an underground evacuation test.

These legal attacks show just how prepared the French are to defend their industrial interests. But the real issue here has to do with a privilege that was already more than questionable when the Channel Tunnel first opened in 1994.

At the time, complicated contract provisions more or less granted Alstom the exclusive right to provide the TGV trains that would be used in the tunnel. According to the old requirements, the trains must have a locomotive at both ends and be at least 400 meters (1,312 feet) long. Within the Channel Tunnel, there are emergency exits leading to a rescue tunnel at intervals of slightly less than 400 meters. Having a longer train guarantees that, in emergency situations, passengers will be able to access an emergency exit without having to leave the train. Another regulation stipulates that passengers must be able to walk down the entire length of the train. And the only train that fulfills these requirements is the long version of France's TGV.

Still, not everyone has been happy with these regulations, including Jacques Gounon, Eurotunnel's CEO. Months ago, he called them "no longer up-to-date" and said they had "major disadvantages." As he argued, it would be better to have shorter trains with only half as many passengers as the 700-passenger Alstom trains currently servicing the line because they could run more frequently and would also be easier to evacuate.

The Siemens ICE train fits this description -- and it is only half as long as the special TGV used in the Eurotunnel. And the fact that it can also be evacuated in faster than the safety requirements stipulate was also impressively confirmed by the 300 volunteer passengers taking part the weekend before last.

The EU Takes Sides

None of this has stopped French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau from intervening on Alstom's behalf. French state-owned railway SNCF owns 55 percent of Eurostar and, even before the test, Bussereau had called its planned contract with Siemens "null and void."

But German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer doesn't see things that way. "I am sure that the French side wouldn't have had any objections if Alstom emerged as the preferred provider," Ramsauer has said. He also says that he has "no doubt that everything about the awarding of the contract was legal," adding that Michel Barnier, the French European Union commissioner for internal market and services, has also confirmed to him that this is the case.

Germany is counting on the assistance of the European Commission in the case. Since liberalizing European railway traffic at the beginning of the year, the Commission has been keeping a very close eye on making sure that no one puts the brakes on new competitors.

Already on Oct. 8, a high-ranking EU official assured Siemens that it would be given energetic support in its battle over the major contract. In a letter to the company, the official told Siemens to "immediately contact" the Commission if anything having to do with the order is "changed or cancelled."

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