France says Eurostar cannot buy German trains

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France's transport minister insisted on Thursday that cross-Channel rail monopoly Eurostar cannot buy German trains because only rolling stock made by French firm 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.

"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," minister Dominique 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.

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, which links London, Paris and Brussels.

Trains passing through the tunnel have to be long enough to allow passengers anywhere on board to reach emergency exits in the tunnel.

Eurostar trains based on Alstom's TGV model are 400 metres (1,300 feet) long and escaping passengers can be sure of being able 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-metre requirement.

Deutsche Bahn made a test run of an ICE-3 train in the tunnel on Wednesday, the first non-Eurostar passenger train ever to enter. It plans to run safety tests on the train in the tunnel on Saturday.

A source close to the matter told AFP when the contract was announced that the order for Siemens could be worth close to 600 million euros (846 million dollars).

© 2010 AFP

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