More than 50,000 passengers see holiday travel canceled as Eurostar problems continue

By Raphael G. Satter, AP
Sunday, December 20, 2009

50,000 travelers affected by Eurostar break downs

LONDON — The only rail link between Britain and France was closed for testing Sunday, after a series of breakdowns trapped thousands in a tunnel for hours in claustrophobic conditions, train company Eurostar said.

The breakdowns of four trains in the Channel Tunnel on Friday evening and ensuing cancellations through the weekend were expected to affect some 50,000 people during the busy holiday travel season.

Passengers were stranded in the dark without food, water or air conditioning for more than 12 hours after the breakdowns, which were initially blamed on severe weather.

The company is running special trains through the tunnels in a bid to pinpoint the problem, press officer Anelle Mouhaddib said Sunday. She declined to say whether any trains had successfully made it through the tunnel, but a series of trains dispatched from London and Paris on Saturday evening were either canceled or broke down.

In addition to the 2,000 people trapped in the tunnel Friday night, a further 31,000 had had their trips canceled Saturday, and 26,000 more were expected to be affected Sunday, Mouhaddib said.

Eurostar’s executives have offered apologies, refunds, free travel and more.

Officials have said that the quick transition from the icy cold of France, which is suffering some of its worst winter weather in years, to the relative warmth of the tunnel could have interfered with the trains’ electrical systems. But the company’s chief operating officer, Nicolas Petrovic, said the exact cause remains unclear.

“It’s all a bit of a mystery and the company, and indeed a lot of people, appear baffled by it,” said Nigel Harris, the managing editor of Rail magazine.

“What is really puzzling about this is the fact that it is happening now, even though the trains have been exposed to cold weather over the last few years, he said.

Comparable trains in France have “been going even longer than Eurostar without experiencing any of these cold-weather problems,” he said.

Eurostar was making no promises to passengers trying to make it to their destinations before Christmas.

Service will be resumed “as soon as possible,” Mouhaddib said.

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