Following the award of preferred bidder status for 1200 new coaches for the Thameslink route being made to Siemens, there has been much talk of countries in mainland Europe looking after their indigenous train builders, and by implication that the UK should do more to look after the Bombardier plant at Derby, even though the company gives every sign of not being overly concerned about it.
So when cross channel operator Eurostar, which is owned by interests in the UK, France and Belgium, decided to put a new train order out to tender, one might have expected that the successful bidder would come from one of those countries, especially given all the assertions that the French, the largest shareholder, look after their own, and that the existing Eurostar fleet is based on the French TGV.
And such an expectation would have been misplaced: the order for ten new trainsets was won by – yes, it’s them again – Siemens, with a bid based on their Velaro-D design, which derives from the ICE3 train already in service in Germany. Considerable displeasure at the news was registered by French manufacturer Alstom, who proceeded to challenge the Siemens award through the courts.
The Alstom challenge was initially bizarre in nature: it was argued that “only Alstom ‘material’ could be used for trains transiting the Channel Tunnel”, even though the Siemens offer would meet the strict tunnel safety criteria regarding length of train, evacuation and ability to split trainsets. The Alstom challenge has now been struck out, even though the company may still pursue a claim for compensation.
As the head of Siemens’ UK rolling stock division has pointed out, this suggests that the procurement process was fair, given it has had to stand a legal challenge. And that only reinforces the feedback from the Thameslink bid, which tells, generally, that Siemens made the better and lower priced bid, and consequently beat Bombardier fair and square.
Whether Bombardier are serious about retaining a manufacturing capacity in the UK will become clear when they bid for the new trains for the Crossrail project (they are on the shortlist, together with Alstom, Siemens, CAF of Spain and Japanese builder Hitachi). It is by no means certain that they would build in the UK if successful.
Which is another way of saying that there is little point in blaming the EU when the best of two bids wins, especially if the losing bidder isn’t really interested, and the idea that the French always look after their own is another urban myth.