German, French rail companies on collision course over Channel Tunnel | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.10.2010
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German, French rail companies on collision course over Channel Tunnel

German rail operator Deutsche Bahn successfully ran evacuation tests with 300 volunteers on a high-speed Siemens-built train in the Channel Tunnel. The tests are a headache for the French government.

German ICE train

Eurostar wants German trains in the Channel Tunnel

A German-built train filled almost to capacity was rolled into the 50-kilometer (31-mile) tunnel beneath the English Channel on Saturday night, where around 300 volunteers were evacuated following an alarm signal.

The tests ran smoothly, a spokeswoman for the tunnel's operator Eurotunnel said Sunday morning.

The tests pose a problem for the French government and French firm Alstom. Eurostar, the company with the monopoly on the cross-Channel rail link between Britain and France want to buy high-speed trains from Deutsche Bahn in order to increase the tunnel's traffic capacity.

Last Thursday, France's transport minister insisted that Eurostar cannot buy German trains because only rolling stock made by Alstom meets safety standards. Minister Dominique Bussereau dismissed an announcement by Eurostar that it had ordered 10 high-speed Velaro trains from German group Siemens, a setback for French group Alstom, as EU railways are opened up to competition.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy sits at the wheel of a high-speed train

France believes it should be in the driver's seat of Channel Tunnel trains

"We have told the directors of Eurotunnel and Eurostar that equipment other than that currently made by Alstom cannot go in the tunnel, so Eurostar's decision is null and void," Bussereau told LCI television.

Deutsche Bahn has complained in the past of a lack of competition in the French rail sector, where domestic traffic is dominated by the state rail company SNCF, and cross-Channel services by Eurostar in which SNCF is the biggest shareholder with 55 percent.

Long trains or short trains?

An official at the transport ministry said separately, "The contract has not been signed and cannot be signed as long as the safety conditions and clearance for the equipment have not been respected." The source added that it would take "about two years" of tests to determine whether Siemens trains could run in the tunnel between England and France. Eurostar trains currently link London, Paris and Brussels.

The row over train safety in the Channel Tunnel is centered on the length of the trains. Eurostar trains based on Alstom's TGV model are 400 meters (1,300 feet) long and can be walked through from one end to the other, allowing escaping passengers the ability to exit near a safety tunnel.

German operator Deutsche Bahn wants to run pairs of Siemens's 200-metre ICE high-speed trains in tandem, while Eurostar wants a new version designed to meet the 400-meter walk-through requirement.

An ICE train in the sunset

ICE has plans to get in on the Channel Tunnel traffic

Deutsche Bahn already made a test run of an ICE-3 train in the tunnel last Wednesday, the first non-Eurostar passenger train ever to enter. A source close to the matter told the AFP news agency when the contract was announced that the order for Siemens could be worth close to 600 million euros ($846 million).

Maximizing capacity

Jacques Gounon, head of Eurotunnel, the company that owns and operates the tunnels themselves, said he is certain that the ICE trains will pass all safety tests, proving that passengers in 200-meter trains are just as certain of reaching the emergency exits safely as those in 400-meter trains.

Eurotunnel has said the tunnels are only being run at capacity of 50 percent at the moment. If the German trains pass all the tests, the French government could face accusations of protectionism.

Author: Ben Knight (AFP, dpa)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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