German Trains in the Channel Tunnel? Plans Move Ahead for Germany-Britain Rail Connection

Germany's national railway has long resented the fact that its high-speed ICE trains are not allowed to operate through the Channel Tunnel. But a test run is planned for October and, if rules are eased, the company could be on track to introduce passenger services direct from Cologne to London in time for the 2012 Olympics.
Germany's high speed ICE trains may soon zip through the Channel Tunnel.

Germany's high speed ICE trains may soon zip through the Channel Tunnel.

Foto: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/ dpa

In October, German national railway operator Deutsche Bahn will take its high-speed InterCityExpress (ICE) trains through the Channel Tunnel for the first time. Those trips will only be trial runs and will include the testing of evacuation procedures. But if all goes according to plan, official permission for German ICE trains to operate through the Channel Tunnel could be given as early as 2012.

Up until now only the Eurostar trains, which are operated by an international consortium including British, French and Belgian railways, have been allowed to pass through the 50.5 kilometer (31.4 mile) undersea tunnel. This is due to safety regulations which stipulate that trains entering the tunnel must be 375 meters (1,230 feet) long so that each end of the train is alligned with an emergency exit. The third-generation German ICE trains -- known as ICE 3  -- are only this length when two trains are coupled together, which makes it impossible for passengers to walk the entire required length. The Eurostar trains currently operating in the tunnel can also be split in two in the event of a fire or emergency and driven in separate directions out of the tunnel. Since the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, three fires have led to the temporary closure of the line, including two major fires.

Safety Regulations Re-Evaluated

This has meant that those traveling from Germany to Britain had to change trains in Brussels before continuing on to London through the Channel Tunnel. However, those safety regulations are currently being re-evaluated and it is likely that, in the future, trains that are only 200 meters long will also be allowed to travel through the tunnel. This would allow not only Deutsche Bahn access to the potentially lucrative route to Britain, but also the French high-speed TGV trains operated by national railway SNCF. The move is possible following European Union rules introduced in January that open up international train lines to greater competition, effectively ending Eurostar's monopoly.

Deutsche Bahn has long sought access for its trains to the Channel Tunnel. Earlier this year in a SPIEGEL interview , Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube, who will be on board for the Oct. 19 test run, pleaded for "a truly European rail system," noting that "the ICEs are permitted to travel through every Alpine tunnel -- but, funnily enough, they're not allowed through the Eurotunnel."

The Return of the Trans-Europe-Express?

In Berlin on Wednesday, Grube told reporters that he was "very optimistic" that the German trains would eventually get permission to go through the tunnel, possibly in time for the London Olympics in 2012. He estimated that at least 1.1 million passengers would use the planned daily service, which would run from Frankfurt or Cologne to London's St. Pancras International, via Brussels. The Deutsche Bahn initiative is also being supported by France's SNCF.

On Tuesday, evening Grube and German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer met with their French counterparts, Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau and the head of the SCNF Guillaume Pépy, to discuss future cooperation, including opening up borders to liberalize regional competition and standardize regulations.