Eurostar says train service will resume Tuesday after 3-day delay stranded tens of thousands

By Jenny Barchfield, AP
Monday, December 21, 2009

Eurostar trains to run Tuesday after 3-day delay

PARIS — Eurostar said it would resume its high-speed rail service linking Britain, France and Belgium on Tuesday after a three-day suspension that stranded tens of thousands of travelers and left French President Nicolas Sarkozy indignant.

Officials at the Eurostar train company said they had identified the problem that caused the suspension: unusually dry, powdery snow that got into the trains’ engines. However, more snow was forecast for early Tuesday — just as train service would be getting back up to speed.

With as many as 40,000 people affected by the suspension, and TV channels broadcasting images of would-be travelers holed up in train stations, Eurostar tried to make amends by offering its “deepest apologies” and promising compensation.

France’s rail woes were not limited to the Eurostar, though.

A suburban Paris train went off the tracks Sunday night, prompting part of the line to be shut down temporarily. Another suburban train line was crippled by strikes that entered their second week Monday, snarling Paris traffic and wreaking havoc for holiday shoppers.

President Sarkozy on Monday summoned the head of France’s SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepys, into the Elysee Palace and ordered him to get the Eurostar moving again, saying the situation was “unacceptable for travelers.”

Problems started Friday after five trains failed inside the Channel Tunnel, trapping more than 2,000 passengers for hours in stuffy and claustrophobic conditions. Exhausted, sometimes teary-eyed passengers appeared in British and French TV broadcasts complaining that they had been left underground for more than 15 hours, without food or water or any clear idea of what was going on.

Eurostar’s CEO Richard Brown, who has faced stiff criticism over the company’s handling of the crisis, said limited service would resume Tuesday and pledged “we will be doing our very best to get everyone home by Christmas.”

Priority will be given to those stranded for days, as well as to the elderly and people with children, Eurostar’s operations chief Nicolas Petrovic said.

If tests go as planned, two out of three scheduled trains will run starting Tuesday morning, Petrovic said. Passing coffee and croissants around to bleary-eyed passengers at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station, he apologized and said the company would reimburse them for expenses incurred while they were stranded.

Petrovic gave a long, technical explanation of what went wrong, saying that dry snow had gotten past the train’s snow-screens and into the engines on Friday. Then the snow turned into condensation inside the Channel Tunnel, where temperatures were higher than those outside. That condensation caused the trains’ electrical circuits to fail, he said.

“It’s the first time we have these snow conditions in 15 years,” he said, adding that normally snow in the region tends to be wet and heavy. Eurostar has commissioned its own independent review into the problems.

While Eurostar works on getting the huge backlog of passengers home, it is blocking any new ticket sales until after Christmas.

Petrovic blamed Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, for the delay in rescuing passengers from the stuck trains, and did not exclude possibility of legal action.

Meanwhile, Eurotunnel said Monday it has suspended its own passenger shuttle service — separate from the Eurostar — “due to heavy traffic.” That means travelers were crossing the channel between Britain and continental Europe only by sea or air.

French Transport Minister Dominique de Bussereau promised an investigation into the situation.

“We cannot imagine that this mode of transport, which is fundamental between France and England, between England and Belgium and the rest of continental Europe, doesn’t work because it’s snowing outside,” Bussereau said on Europe-1 radio, speaking from Beijing where he was on an official visit.

Clear weather Monday allowed air traffic from the French capital to get back to normal after two days of extensive cancellations. Flights out of Paris’ airports were running with average delays of 30 minutes to one hour on Monday, the city’s airport authority said.

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