’FRANCE is clearly a country where things have to change in the coming months’, Jean-Arnold Vinois told the Railway Forum in London on April 15. The man driving rail reform at DG TREN in Brussels was referring to the obligation to facilitate open access for freight on Terfn routes from March 15, and the obstructive tactics hitherto adopted by SNCF (RG 4.03 p177). The relevant directives were transposed into French law a few days earlier.

Among those to be first off the mark was Eurotunnel with an application to Transport Secretary Dominique Bussereau for a licence to carry international freight within France. Eurotunnel was already deep in the UK’s regulatory jungle seeking both international and domestic licences, and paths for its first intermodal service.

Eurotunnel’s Chief Executive Richard Shirrefs said on April 1 ’rail freight through the Channel Tunnel remains very disappointing with only 1·4 million tonnes per annum ... barriers to the development of cross-Channel freight must be lifted.’ Traffic forecasts made in the mid-1980s by British Rail and SNCF, on which the decision to build the Tunnel was based, showed 8 million tonnes in 2003, and 16 million in 2023.

The only operators today are EWS and SNCF, which exchange traffic in the classic manner. We understand that EWS has threatened to abandon Tunnel freight in 2005-06 when the British government stops paying the company’s share of the Minimum Usage Charge. This is currently around £20m/year, equivalent to about 4 million tonnes under the tariff agreed in 1987.

Desperate to avoid a £65m drop in revenue when the MUC ends, Eurotunnel ’s response has been to develop plans for an intermodal service between terminals at Dourges near Lille and Daventry in the UK. The objective is to run the intervening 400 km non-stop, bypassing Fréthun and Dollands Moor where stops at both ends of the Tunnel to change locos and go through security checks are obligatory today.

Starting with four round trips a day, the aim is to build up over four years to hourly departures carrying 1·2 million swap bodies or containers within the existing loading gauge. An SRA insider assured us that these paths are available.

Inevitably, harsh realities are intruding. A stop at one end of the Tunnel looks inevitable because the 46 dual-voltage Class 92 locos which haul all freight through the Tunnel are mysteriously deemed unsafe in France. Shirrefs’ objective of matching Le Shuttle’s current performance of 97·6% within 5min looks highly optimistic against the 79·4% on-time arrivals recorded for UK passenger trains in 2002.

But Eurotunnel is serious about this, and had indicated for the first time that it is willing to address issues of transparent and competitive charges for Tunnel freight, probably based on a flat rate per train regardless of tonnage.