Eurotunnel coup threatens EWS

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The Independent Online

EWS, Britain's largest rail freight operator, could be forced to abandon services though the Channel Tunnel following last week's coup at Eurotunnel.

EWS, Britain's largest rail freight operator, could be forced to abandon services though the Channel Tunnel following last week's coup at Eurotunnel.

French shareholders ousted the board of the stricken Eurotunnel on the promise that the new management would jack up its charges to the train operators. But EWS, which runs 80 trains a week though the tunnel, has warned that it will close its international operations unless access charges fall next year.

The British Government currently plays for EWS's access charges, but this arrangement expires in April 2005.

EWS says in its latest set of accounts that its international arm "intends to continue its Channel Tunnel operations after April 2005, but will not be able to do so unless Eurotunnel materially reduces its charges. The present contractual arrangements do not compel Eurotunnel to do this."

Eurotunnel's old management, headed by chief executive Richard Shirrefs, promised to slash access charges to freight operators by up to 75 per cent in an attempt to increase volumes though the tunnel. This was the central plank of "Project Galaxie" to revitalise Eurotunnel. The new management, headed by chairman Jacques Maillot and chief executive Jean-Louis Raymond, have pledged to tear up these plans.

Their proposals have been thin on the ground. Apart from increasing access charges, their only other stated suggestion is to ask the British and French governments for money. Last week both countries refused.

UK Transport Secretary Alistair Darling was involved in Eurotunnel's restructuring plans under its old management. He encouraged the Channel Tunnel Rail Link developer, London & Continental Railways (LCR), to help bail out the company. But Mr Darling appears to have distanced himself from the Eurotunnel's new management. A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "There are no plans to meet the new Eurotunnel board."

Sources close to LCR said that the company would "sit back and wait to see how the situation develops" at Eurotunnel before deciding whether to help bail out the troubled business.

Eurotunnel's new management may now be forced to sell off its car and lorry shuttle service.

It is understood that before Eurotunnel's board was ousted, the French state-owned rail company, SNCF, had expressed an interest in buying the shuttle side of the business.

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