EU pressed to investigate Eurostar

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The Independent Online
THE consortium selected by the Government to take over Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels faces an anti-trust investigation by European Commission competition authorities.

EasyJet, the low-cost airline, is set to file a complaint alleging that the consortium, headed by British Airways and the coach group National Express, will unfairly dominate the travel market between London, Paris and Brussels.

"Allowing British Airways to run Eurostar is like putting Herod in charge of a kindergarten," EasyJet said in a statement yesteday.

Virgin claims that BA and National Express will have an "economic interest" in 90 per cent of the market, which is estimated at 15 million passengers a year. BA is the biggest single airline operator between London and Paris with an estimated 40 per cent of the market, while National Express is the prime operator of coach services to Paris and Brussels .

A Virgin spokesman said it was still considering whether to join easyJet in making a formal complaint to the European Competion Commissioner Karel Van Miert. He added that Brussels would be duty-bound to examine the deal anyway.

National Express will initially have a 40 per cent stake in the Eurostar operation and BA a 10 per cent interest. The French and Belgian railways, SNCF and SNCB, would have the other 50 per cent. But BA's stake would rise to 35 per cent once it has regulatory approval.

The consortium said that it would seek to integate Eurostar with coach, bus and airline services. Virgin alleges this could result in unfair pricing.

European Commission officials were cautious about whether the selection of the Eurostar consortium would harm fair competition.