French-German turf war erupts over trains for Channel tunnel

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France reacted angrily on safety grounds to a decision Thursday by Channel tunnel rail service operator Eurostar to buy trains from Siemens of Germany, shunning Alstom of France.

Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo and Junior Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau expressed "stupefaction" at the choice by Eurostar, in which French state-owned rail operator SNCF is the biggest shareholder with 55 percent.

Eurostar said earlier that it had ordered 10 high-speed trains from Siemens.

"Eurostar International intends to order ten high-speed Velaro trains from Siemens for its London-Paris route," a statement said.

"Eurostar plans to invest some 800 million euros (1.1 billion dollars) in the purchase of new trains and the overhaul and refurbishment of its existing train fleet," it added.

A source close to the matter told AFP the Siemens order could be worth close to 600 million euros.

Siemens, a vast engineering conglomerate, has had ambitions for years to challenge the French TGV high-speed trains made by Alstom, which have gained a big lead in European and world markets, with models of its own design.

When Alstom, which also builds power stations and ships, had to be rescued with French state support but under EU conditions, Siemens was keenly interested in picking up parts of the Alstom group.

In 2012, German railway Deutsche Bahn plans to offer services to London for the Olympics, meaning that for the first time two European railways will compete on a cross border route.

The French ministers told Eurostar in a statement to make sure that the trains on order met safety specifications for the tunnel beneath the Channel between France and the south of England.

Alstom meanwhile charged that the Siemens trains would not meet the safety standards required for operating in the tunnel.

Safety standards for trains running through the Channel tunnel had to be of "the highest specifications and therefore do not cover the passage of the trains which Eurostar has chosen," it said.

Rail travel in the European Union is being opened increasingly to competition and the two French ministers said that they supported this.

At the same time, they said the greatest attention had to be given to safety, arguing that three fires in the tunnel in 1996, 2006 and 2008 were a reminder that "no undermining of the level of security can be allowed."

Eurostar said the deal was subject to completion of talks on final terms.

The order will expand Eurostar's current fleet of 27 trains, "whose design and technology will also be overhauled starting in 2011," Eurostar said.

About nine million passengers now take the train each year on Eurostar routes between Brussels, London and Paris.

Deutsche Bahn is to make a much-awaited test run to London on October 19.

Eurostar boss Nicolas Petrovic was quoted as saying the new and renovated trains would "bolster our position as the dominant rail operator between the United Kingdom and the continent."

The Velaro train is one of Siemens' flagship products and can carry up to 900 passengers, or 20 percent more than the tunnel trains now in circulation, at 320 kilometres (200 miles per hour).

It would connect London and Paris in just over two hours, London and Amsterdam in less than four hours, and London and Geneva in about five hours.

Siemens has already sold the trains to in China, Russia and Spain, but lost out to Alstom's AGV in an Italian tender.

A third major rival in the market for high-speed trains is the Canadian group Bombardier and all pitch their products as environmentally friendly transportation options.

© 2010 AFP

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