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French government says 'non' to German Eurostar trains

Tensions are rising over the decision by French-controlled Eurostar to buy new trains from Germany's Siemens and not from France's Alstom. French government officials still hope to derail the planned deal.

Eurostar train

Eurostar aims to make room for Siemens trains

Earlier this month, international rail services operator Eurostar defied opposition from the French government to become the first affiliate of French state-owned train operator SNCF to order high-speeds trains made outside of France. On Thursday, the country's transportation minister stepped up government opposition to the planned 600 million euro ($845 million) order for German trains by claiming that only those built by France's Alstom could use the Channel Tunnel.

French Transportation Minister Dominique Bussereau called Eurostar's selection of Siemens "null and void" in an interview with LCI Television. The minister repeated government claims that Siemens' trains represent a safety risk - claims that both the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission and Eurostar have rejected.

"Purely safety concerns"

Bussereau added that the French government's concerns are purely safety related and not a question of choosing Alstom or any other manufacturer. Among the government's chief concerns: only trains with power units at the front or rear of trains, known as "concentrated traction" systems, could manage fires in tunnels safely. Alstom trains are built with such systems. Siemens' trains, by comparison, have motors equipped beneath each coach, a design referred to as "distributed traction."

Siemens' Velaro train

Siemens' Velaro train could soon be running alongside Alstom's AGV

In early September, transportation ministers from France and Germany said they had reached an agreement to modify the safety rules that have, so far, kept non-Eurostar trains out of the Chunnel.

The remarks from the French minister came one day after a Siemens high-speed train entered the tunnel for the first time on a trial run - and are certain to increase European Commission concern over the French's government's opposition to the order. The trip was part of a series of tests that Germany's Deutsche Bahn is conducting before it launches its planned service between Frankfurt and London.

Competition for equipment and operations

Eurostar has decided to overhaul its existing equipment and buy new trains for its routes, which run between London and the continental cities of Paris and Brussels.

The 10 trains that Siemens is to deliver will be capable of reaching speeds of 320 kilometers per hour and carry more than 900 passengers, compared to 750 passengers in existing trains. The new trains will be interoperable, meaning that they can operate across Europe's high-speed rail network.

Competition is heating up not only on the equipment side but on the operator side, too. The Eurostar fleet overhaul comes amid increasing competition from rival operators to use the Channel Tunnel. The European Union supports allowing other operators to use cross-border track, provided they fulfill all specifications. Currently, only the Eurostar fleet meets the specifications required to use the tunnel.

Eurostar is 55 percent owned by SNCF (Societe National des Chemins de fer Francais). London & Continental Railways has a 40 percent stake while Belgian railway operator SNCB (Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Belges) owns the remaining 5 percent.

Author: John Blau (Reuters, AFP)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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