December 21, 2009 / 9:36 AM / in 9 years

UPDATE 4-Eurostar to resume traffic, blames snow for chaos

* No Eurostar trains running for third day

* To resume partial service on Tuesday, full service Dec. 28

* Eurostar blames “very light, powdery snow”

(Adds new details, quotes from Eurostar executives)

By Sophie Hardach and James Regan

PARIS, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Eurostar trains between Britain and France will start running again on Tuesday, the company said on Monday, blaming powdery snow for a series of breakdowns that stranded thousands and infuriated the French government.

Eurostar, owned by the French and Belgian state railway firms and by Britain, cancelled all services on Monday for the third day in a row after some 2,500 people were trapped on trains inside the Channel Tunnel for up to 16 hours on Saturday.

France’s government doubted the cold was the sole reason and ordered an investigation, while President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned Guillaume Pepy, who heads both Eurostar and French railway operator SNCF, for an explanation.

Eurostar Chief Operating Officer Nicolas Petrovic blamed “very light, powdery snow” of a type normally found in mountains rather than in the plains of northern France for the chaos. The company has commissioned an independent inquiry.

He said the snow had got into the trains so that when they entered the much warmer tunnel, the snow melted and caused condensation that affected the electrical power systems.

“It’s the first time we have these snow conditions in this place in 15 years,” Petrovic told a delayed news conference at the Eurostar terminal at the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

Eurostar hopes to run two out of three services on Tuesday after satisfactory tests on modified trains on Monday, but Petrovic encouraged stranded passengers to try to find other ways home if they could, saying Eurostar would cover the cost.

Petrovic said the company, which normally carries about 40,000 people a day between Britain and continental Europe, expected services to be back to normal by Dec. 28.

WRONG TYPE OF SNOW

“We can’t believe that Eurostar trains can’t run for three days because of snow, so there must be a technical problem,” French Transport Secretary Dominique Bussereau said on Monday during a visit to China.

Tunnel operator Eurotunnel (GETP.PA) said its infrastructure was still working and its own shuttle service for vehicles, which share the tunnel with the passenger trains, was operating.

Eurostar’s Petrovic said he expected costs associated with sorting out the situation to be very high for the company.

He added that he wanted to know why it took so long to evacuate customers trapped in the Channel Tunnel and said Eurostar must work on cooperation with Eurotunnel. Eurostar cannot communicate with its teams once trains go underground.

Passengers were stuck on trains all night between Friday and Saturday on a journey that usually takes two hours and a quarter from London to Paris.

Some complained they were left with no power, air conditioning, food or water, and received little or no information during their ordeal. Many were still wondering on Monday if they would make it home for Christmas. [ID:nLDE5BK0ZS]

Illustrating the scale of the problem faced by Eurostar and its passengers, Petrovic added: “We can’t find 40,000 hotel rooms. It’s not possible.”

He pledged to compensate customers who had been stuck in the tunnel with one-off payments of around $240 as well as twice the cost of their tickets, and said all those unable to travel would have their tickets and expenses such as hotels reimbursed.

In London, Chief Executive Richard Brown told reporters Eurostar would prioritise people due to have travelled at the weekend when allocating places on trains over the coming days.

The French transport secretary demanded that the causes of the breakdown be found and measures taken to prevent a repeat.

Train manufacturer Alstom (ALSO.PA) said it was co-operating with Eurostar though it was not responsible for maintenance.

Christopher Garnett, who has served as chief executive of a British railway company and commercial director of Eurotunnel, will lead the independent review commissioned by Eurostar. (Additional reporting by Paris and London bureaux; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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