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Paralympic stars on fast track to London

updated 5:41 AM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eurostar has modified its first-class carriages for Paralympic athletes
  • Paralympians from France and Belgium will arrive in London via the high speed rail service
  • Eurostar aims to double the number of seats on offer to disabled passengers next year

(CNN) -- Eurostar is used to catering for Europe's business big shots but in the run-up to the Paralympic Games the high speed rail operator is instead priming its services for the continent's elite disabled athletes.

First-class carriages on two Eurostar trains have been overhauled to make room for special facilities that meet the travel requirements of hundreds of Paralympians heading for London 2012.

Eurostar engineering manager Jim Henderson showed CNN's Richard Quest how tables and chairs have been removed to make way for bulkheads, which will allow up to 18 wheelchair users to travel on the train at the same time. "That will allow the disabled athlete to come in, back up his wheelchair onto the bulkhead, and click onto the bulkhead so he's safe to travel," Henderson said.

See also: Europe's high speed trains in numbers

Eurostar engineers have been hard at work devising strategies to accommodate the different needs of disabled athletes in their role as official international rail partner of the Games.

The first to experience the modified trains will be members of the French and Belgian Paralympic squads -- including teams competing in blind football, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball -- who are due to travel to London by Eurostar on August 25 and 26. The opening ceremony is on August 29.

Those making the journey believe the opportunity to arrive as a team will aid their preparation and, they hope, help foster the team spirit that will push them towards gold.

It's important for us to come to ... London together. It means all the French teams in one times
Moez el Assine, French Paralympian

"It's important for us to come to ... London together. It means all the French teams in one time," said French Paralympic fencing champion Moez el Assine. "For the beginning, for the cohesion, for the French team, it's very important."

Those sentiments were echoed by British medal hopeful and world Paralympic javelin record holder Nathan Stephens. He's familiar with additional challenges disabled athletes and travelers often face.

"It's one of the barriers that we have to overcome to become a great athlete. We've got to take all these other things into consideration before we even travel, before we even get to an event," said Stephens.

"If you're flying somewhere ... you need to make sure the lifts are working or people are aware of how to get you onto the plane and stuff.

"Before we pick up a javelin, all of this comes first and it's just part and parcel of being a Paralympic athlete."

Longer term, Eurostar hopes the infrastructure work on its trains will give it an edge in serving and attracting disabled travelers.

See also: Italy's "Ferrari train"

Refurbished carriages with double the number of seats for disabled passengers will roll off the production line next year, the company says.

Eurostar hopes other new features -- such as Wi-Fi and a greater frequency of services -- will help increase its popularity.

"It's a very competitive market, the airlines are very good," said Eurostar CEO Nicolas Petrovic. "We want to grow the market. Our market share, if you take London-Amsterdam, is very low. London to Provence, very low. So that's where we're going."

He added: "There is still capacity left in the tunnel, so we can have more slots and we can work our trains a bit harder."

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