24 August 2011 by Pelle Neroth
At the heart of the conflict is the growing market for high speed rail investment around the globe. It's really big. Europe could have thousands of kilometres of additional high speed rail tracks by 2025; China is poised for an even more impressive 25,000 km, by 2015.
Japan is a mature market but will still have over 3,000 km. Brazil, the USA, Morocco and maybe other countries may have smaller networks of a few hundred km each. Europe is an important battleground. As analysts put it, a company that can win order on its home ground is more likely to win them outside Europe.
Alstom rolled out its new AGV model, a successor to the TGV, three years ago. Its top speed is an impressive 360 km/h, and uses distributed power, that is to say the train is powered by motors distributed along the entire train under each carriage rather than by locomotives at the front and at the back of each train.
Unfortunately SNCF, the French state-owned train company, Alstom's loyal customer for three decades, shunned the new train, for all its impressive technology. SNCF runs high capacity double-deckers on France's large high speed network, and distributed traction works badly with double-deckers. SNCF is sticking with Alstom's older models.
Then, last year, Alstom bid against Siemens for a 10 car contract for Eurostar, worth 650m euros. Siemens won, on merit, apparently winning 19.5/20 in Eurostar's technology assessment tests while the AGV achieved just 12 points. These new Siemens e320 Velaro trains, based on the German ICE3 trains that run on Germany's extensive high speed network, will also use distributed power.
The Velaro will be quieter and faster than the current TGV-based ageing Eurostar trains and, because they are specially equipped, will be able to run on German tracks, which the current Eurostar trains are unable to do. With the new rolling stock, Eurostar have hinted at services to Amsterdam and Cologne, and Frankfurt, and perhaps other places. This, incidentally, could impact heavily on the airlines.
Deutsche Bahn, the German rail company, will also be running Siemens Velaro trains into London starting in 2013, under new open market regulations passed by Brussels. So there will be competition on the route. With the choice of two operators, travellers out of St Pancras may soon experience lower prices and a greater choice of destinations in addition to the comfier trains
However, the French government was furious than Eurostar plumped for a German model. France has always done its utmost to advance Alstom, regarded as a National Champion.
SNCF, 100% state owned, in turn owns a 55% share of Eurostar, so Paris expected Eurostar to do the patriotic - ie French - thing. When they didn't, they tried other ways to at least get the rival cancelled . Two of Sarkozy's cabinet ministers, for environment and transport, wrote a letter to the Channel Tunnel Safety chiefs, saying the distributed design was unsafe for travelling in a long tunnel.
The basis was the old rules that specified a two locomotive approach in the first place. With distributed traction, it would be harder for travellers to escape noxious fumes if a fire started in the motor underneath their carriage. SNCF also sacked two of their appointees to the Eurostar board.
The letter was rejected. The rules were updated this year to account of the growing safety of train technology and the Channel Tunnel safety group saw no reason to change them back. French "safety concern" motives were regarded as rather transparent. "It's a heck of a coincidence, isn't it?" one insider was quoted as saying in a UK newspaper. "There are many other long tunnels across Europe that have allowed distributed traction for some time."
Alstom, feeling hard done by, then issued legal challenges to Eurostar but lost in a High Court judgment made last October. It may get some damages on the basis that Eurostar changed some of the details of its tender, but Eurostar's decision to go for Siemens will at least not now be countermanded.
This week, Alston and SNCF have put in a bid to design Russia's new high speed railway, linking St Petersburg and Moscow. It will be a dedicated rail link following the controversies around the Russian effort in this area: the Sapsan (Russian for "Peregrine falcon") high speed service has been running between the two cities since 2009 --- on the regular line.
Critics have complained that the demands of high speed rail have clogged capacity on this most important of Russian railway lines. The high frequency of service, and special restriction of fast trains, means closing the level crossings en route for much of the day, preventing ambulances, fire engines and commuters from crossing from one side to another, and even splitting communities built around the track.
The Sapsan also runs at less than maximum speed, 200 km/h. The Sapsan trains are in fact, again, Siemens Velaro model variants, adapted for Russia's broader gauge. Success with dedicated tracks that would relieve congestion and allow new AGV high speed trains to go at their full speed would be a boost for Alstom. For all its investment in the AGV train model, Alstom has only managed to win one AGV order in three years, from a private train operator in Italy
The big prize is, of course, China. This year, according to the BBC, the country will have more dedicated high speed rail tracks than the rest of the world put together, over 12,000 km. Compare that to the 100km length of Britain's sole high speed track, dubbed HS1, that links St Pancras to the mouth of the Channel Tunnel.
And yet China's capacity could double again over the next decade. The country has already ordered 1,000 high speed trains from western manufacturers.
Alstom has won some offers, but again Siemens have done well, as have Canada's Bombardier and two Chinese train manufacturers. One of these last two, CSR railways, having acquired technology from western joint venture partners, is already beginning to export it.
It's competitive times for the makers of the TGV, icon of France's leadership in technology. But competition is clearly a good thing. With Deutsche Bahn and Siemens having outcompeted it on the cross-channel market, it has arguably already given better outcomes for British customers .
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 24 August 2011 at 05:09 PM by Pelle Neroth
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 24 August 2011 05:02 PM Transport
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