Railways: France and Germany go to war
9 September 2010
France's SNCF and its German rival Deutsche Bahn are locked in a struggle to corner the high-speed train market. London weekly The Economist argues they would better off merge.
AT THE Gare de l’Est in Paris, Franco-German co-operation seems on track. Deutsche Bahn inter-city express (ICE) trains glide in from Frankfurt and SNCF sends trains deep into Germany, thanks to a joint venture between the two firms. Every train has a French and a German controller on board. Despite wrangling over details – French unions, for instance, refused to let their head conductors serve meals to first-class passengers, so the Germans have to do it all – they get along well. “When we’re on the same train, we’re a team,” says Marine Dubois, the French controlleur on the 13.09 ICE to Frankfurt.
The joint venture between Deutsche Bahn and SNCF, the German and French rail giants, was launched in 2007 amid high hopes. Boosters predicted an open European market where trains and passengers would cross borders without fuss. But old national rivalries are resurfacing. Relations at the top have turned nasty. The joint venture could even be at risk.
SNCF and Deutsche Bahn are for the first time competing directly for mastery of European high-speed rail. Since January, all European rail firms have had the right to cross each other’s borders with international services. In addition, French trains are pushing swiftly into Germany’s domestic market, which is already open to foreign firms. Last year, Keolis, a subsidiary of SNCF, asked for rights to run long-distance routes between big German cities. Deutsche Bahn, shocked, predicted “a bloody battle”, and advised the French that “in a war, there is no winner”.
On August 31st France’s and Germany’s transport ministers will hold an emergency meeting with the two firms’ chief executives. Deutsche Bahn and SNCF need to have normal commercial relations, like Lufthansa and Air France, says France’s transport minister. But ministers are also fighting over rail. With government backing, Deutsche Bahn accuses France of unfairly protecting its domestic rail market, which is closed to foreign trains. SNCF, on the other hand, complains that Germany has not fully separated Deutsche Bahn’s train operations from its rail-infrastructure firm, potentially putting rivals at a disadvantage. The European Commission is taking legal action over the issue. Read full article in The Economist...