France’s intervention after Eurostar Group Ltd. ordered German trains for use in the Channel Tunnel was wholly political and not prompted by any realistic safety concerns, Groupe Eurotunnel SA, the link’s operator, said today.
While French President Nicolas Sarkozy could frustrate the bid to introduce Siemens AG trains to the tunnel, successful evacuation tests and pressure from his counterparts in Britain and Germany should quell the backlash, Eurotunnel Chief Executive Officer Jacques Gounon said in an interview.
“They can block it, yes, but David Cameron will want to see more traffic through the tunnel and Angela Merkel will want fair access for Siemens, so it’s a case of two against one and I think there will be an agreement,” Gounon said at London’s St. Pancras station, where Germany’s Deutsche Bahn AG was displaying its own Siemens train in advance of services it aims to begin in 2013. “It’s purely political. There are no safety concerns.”
Eurostar, controlled by French state rail operator SNCF, last week ordered 10 Siemens trains worth 600 million pounds ($943 million), prompting Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau to express “stupefaction” that Paris-based Alstom SA had missed out. German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said yesterday that France should avoid a “protectionist row,” while the U.K. government backs both the Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn plans.
The rail companies need amendments to safety rules to allow operations through the tunnel using variants of the Siemens Velaro D train -- which relies on motors under its carriages rather than locomotives at either end -- as they seek to add destinations and cut travel times to win traffic from airlines.
Any update of the regulations must be approved by the Franco-British Intergovernmental Commission on the tunnel, acting on advice from the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority.
Gounon said last weekend’s tests in the tunnel showed that the Deutsche Bahn train, composed of two separate units with no continuous corridor, could be safely evacuated in the event of a fire. Because it can be easily split the train might even be safer than the existing Eurostars made by Alstom, he said.
“It’s absolutely key to understand that safety can be improved while new competitors can enter in the tunnel,” Gounon said in an interview on The Pulse with Andrea Catherwood on Bloomberg Television. “This is a different world. Eurostar has its own responsibilities to select its own train set.”
Gounon said safety rules shouldn’t be used to help some train manufacturers overcome “their own commercial weaknesses,” and that regulations conceived 20 years ago need updating.
While French Trade Minister Christian Estrosi yesterday called on Eurostar to reopen its tender, Michel Barnier, the European Union’s financial services commissioner, has responded to complaints from Alstom by advising that the contract award involved no breach of procurement rules, the Financial Times reported today, citing European Commission officials.
Gounon said that Alstom’s bid for the Eurostar order is only likely to be revived if the French company can show it can compete with Siemens on price. Even then the manufacturer would be pitching a version of its AGV train employing a distributed- drive system similar to that used in the Siemens Velaro series.
The ability to use trains made up of two units is crucial in allowing new operators to match capacity with demand while minimizing tunnel access charges, Gounon said today.
German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, speaking today in London, where he was attending the Deutsche Bahn demonstration, said he’ll meet with French counterpart tomorrow.
“The problems that have been raised over safety are not very substantial,” Ramsauer told journalists. “I’m quite sure we can settle the issue.”
Deutsche Bahn would run one eight-car train from Frankfurt via Cologne and another from Amsterdam via Rotterdam, with the units joining together in Lille to form a single train that would be charged only once for transiting the tunnel, he said.
Eurostar, with 16 years of experience in serving routes from London to Paris and Brussels, is already a high-volume operator confident of its ability to fill new 900-seat units that would be the train equivalent of an Airbus SAS A380 superjumbo plane, the executive said.
Eurotunnel is also keen to encourage the use of Hitachi Ltd. trains for stopping services through the tunnel, serving destinations such as Ashford in Kent and Calais.
French utility Veolia Environnement SA’s transport division could also be interested in running services after talks with Air France-KLM Group on a cross-channel project lapsed, Gounon said, while Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains and the Dutch railway are other possible future operators.
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