France’s state railway is set to face the fiercest competition in its history after a European Commission ruling forcing the country to open its internal rail freight market came into effect on Friday.

The change – which took effect in the early hours – has made France the first European Union member to liberalise its domestic freight market under pressure. Member states have been obliged to allow competition in cross-border rail freight since 2003.

However, private freight operators are still unhappy about their ability to operate trains in France, where they say they face problems gaining approval for rolling stock which operates in many other European countries.

France was forced last year to agree to open its market early as the price of Commission approval for €800m ($960m, £560m) in stateaid to SNCF Fret, the lossmaking freight arm of SNCF, the state-owned train operator.

Although many member states – including the UK, Germany and Sweden – have already introduced competition into domestic rail freight, member states other than France will be obliged to allow competition only from January 1 next year.

A number of private competitors for SNCF – including Eurocargo Rail, a subsidiary of Britain’s EWS, Veolia Transport, part of France’s Veolia Environnement, and Rail4Chem, a successful German rail freight operator – have gained the safety certificates necessary to operate on the French rail network. They intend to seek customers on internal freight flows within France.

Veolia Transport has been operating freight trains in France since last June, when it started running a few cross-border services into Germany. Eurocargo Rail has also run a few experimental services from France through the Channel Tunnel to England, although it has no regular services yet.

Monika Heiming, secretary-general of the European Rail Freight Association, which represents private operators, said experience in other countries suggested that competition increased the size of the rail freight market and that this could happen in France.

However, she said the biggest problem for her members was that the Class 66 diesel locomotive, the main locomotive for many private freight operators’ trains, was still not cleared to operate in France. The process of clearing the locomotive, which operates successfully in many European countries, is controlled partly by SNCF.

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