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Private finance speeds up French high speed rail

Bankers and contractors on France’s latest high speed rail line have expressed disbelief at the UK’s reluctance to seek private finance to build High Speed 2 (HS2).

They said using a privately financed concession had speeded the French project up.

Earlier this month, work began on the biggest structure for the 302km long Bordeaux-Tours South Europe Atlantic (SEA) high speed line.

The line is due to come into operation in 2017, six years after the start of construction and 13 years after the French government gave the project the go-ahead. It is privately financed, although loans are backed by government guarantees (see box).

Bosses of the project’s concession company Lisea and construction joint venture Cosea agreed that harnessing private finance had helped to make such rapid progress possible.

Cosea project director Xavier Neuschwander said that the 50 year concession to operate the line began the moment the deal was signed, before planning permission had been given or public consultation had taken place.

This meant that the quicker the line comes into service, the greater the return the concession company can get on its investment. This urgency has been passed down to Cosea.

“The duration of the contract is set at 50 years. So the shorter the construction phase, the faster operations can start and that makes it more profitable,” he said. “The use of private finance has undeniably speeded it up.”

Publicly backed HS2 got the go-ahead in 2010 but construction of the first 225km long phase one to Birmingham is not expected to start until 2017 with completion scheduled for 2026.

Lisea chairman Hervé Tricot told NCE this week that he was “surprised” the UK had discarded  private finance. The government is not expected to seek private money for HS2 until it is built. After it is built, HS2 will be leased to a private operator under a 30 year concession on completion.

Private finance to fund construction of the new line has been ruled out. But the French approach on the Bordeaux-Tours line has speeded the project up.

“Having private cash makes it in the interests of everyone to go faster,” said Tricot. “We signed our contract in June 2011 and will open in July 2017. No project of this magnitude in France has gone that quickly. The project is going on speedily and one of the reasons is because it is a PPP [public private partnership], so I was surprised when you discarded it,” he said. “You invented PPP but seem reluctant to use it now.”

The Cosea joint venture is led by contractor Vinci Construction and includes a raft of French construction firms along with Dutch consultant Arcadis and Egis Rail.

“In a conventionally-procured project we would have needed at least five more years,” he said.

Time was saved by carrying out environmental impact assessments, detailed design and land acquisition concurrently with the public consultation.

On HS2 public consultation is being carried out first.

“We did these things simultaneously,” said Neuschwander. “We would normally do one after the other and that would normally take up to 10 years. We wrapped them up in two to two and half.”

“So here we are, in 2013 and already we have got 200 bridges and structures being built.” Construction of the largest, the 1.4km long Viaduc de la Dordogne, was launched earlier this month.


France’s latest high speed rail line

The €7.8bn (£6.6bn) SEA Tours-Bordeaux line is a high speed rail project covering a distance of 302km and providing a continuous high speed link between Paris and Bordeaux. At present only the Paris-Tours section of this journey can be travelled at high speed.

When the line opens in 2017, a train journey from Paris to Bordeaux will take 2 hours and 5 minutes, around one hour less than the current travel time.

The project opens the way to other high speed rail projects connecting Limoges, Toulouse and possibly even Spain to the French high speed network.

The line is being built under a concession contract, with heavy government subsidy and bank loans.

Around £3.4bn of the £6.6bn needed for construction is coming directly from central or local government. A large proportion of the bank loans that make up the remaining 50% are also guaranteed by the French government.

Readers' comments (1)

  • the article suggests UK is slower than France and this is somehow wrong, the article implies 13 years from go ahead to operation for the TGV line compared to 16 years for HS2. Is the 3 years less for the TGV project solely due to its PFI and concession arrangement?

    One could argue that after completing its first line back in 1983 France should be building these lines in only 8 - 10 years having continuously improved their government and planning processes?

    Seems more like UK HS Rail is doing a good job?

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