December 21, 2009 / 5:36 AM / 11 years ago

Eurostar halts trains, angry France demands answers

PARIS (Reuters) - Eurostar halted services for a third day to probe a breakdown of trains through the Channel Tunnel that stranded thousands, prompting an angry French government to demand an explanation and call its own inquiry.

Passengers wait at the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras Station in London December 21, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Eurostar, owned by the French and Belgian state railway firms and the UK, blamed bad weather for the problem that left some 2,500 trapped inside the Anglo-French tunnel for up to 16 hours at the weekend - and countless others wondering if they would make it back home across the Channel in time for Christmas.

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

Eurostar said a partial service would resume on Tuesday and it hoped to have a full schedule of trains back in operation by next Monday.

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

Eurostar, which is commissioning an independent review, said moving from the outside cold into the warmer tunnel caused condensation that affected electrical systems.

Shares in tunnel operator Eurotunnel at one stage dropped 3 percent early on Monday, making the stock among the top losers on France’s SBF120 index. At 1:19 p.m. the stock had recovered to trade up 1.4 percent.

Eurotunnel said its infrastructure was still working and its own shuttle service for vehicles, which runs parallel to the Eurostar through the tunnel, was still operating, though it was not accepting new bookings for Monday.

“These events might bring one-time charges, but more importantly, the real problem here is Eurotunnel’s image,” one Paris-based trader said.

“SWIM ACROSS”

Eurostar on Monday twice delayed a news conference called to explain the breakdown, in a minor echo of the chaos faced by thousands of its passengers.

Passengers were stuck on trains for up to 16 hours in freezing temperatures in the night of Friday to Saturday, on a journey that usually takes little more than two hours from London to Paris.

Some complained that they were left with no power, air conditioning, food or water, and received little or no information during their ordeal.

At St Pancras International station in London, disgruntled travellers vented their frustration.

“We had a good time in London but now I have had enough of it,” Sonia Van Waelam, a 49-year-old from Belgium who works for the Interior Ministry, told Reuters. She was due to travel home on Sunday and be back at work on Monday. “I hope I will be home for Christmas, otherwise I will have to swim across.”

French minister Bussereau demanded that the causes of the breakdown be found and measures taken to prevent a recurrence, and that Eurostar train manufacturer Alstom was co-operating.

The firm, whose shares rose 1.1 percent, was not immediately available for comment.

TECHNICAL MODIFICATIONS

“We have made some technical modifications on the trains last night that we believe will actually solve the problem,” Mercer told the BBC.

The changes include improving snow screens and shields on locomotives to cope with more snow expected in northern France.

Christopher Garnett, who has served as Chief Executive of GNER railways and commercial director of Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel, will lead the independent review.

Eurostar carries about 40,000 people a day between England and continental Europe.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Given the backlog of cancelled journeys, the company has warned it will not be able to carry all passengers who had been due to travel over the next few days.

“It’s annoying and frustrating, especially this close to Christmas,” said 24-year-old Daniel Hill, a stranded passenger waiting at the Eurostar terminal in the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

“If the train doesn’t work, the train doesn’t work, but why couldn’t they build a train that works in the cold!”

Additional reporting by Clement Guillou in Bejing, Stefano Ambrogi and Avril Ormsby in London, Sudip Kar-Gupta, James Regan and Blaise Robinson in Paris; Editing by Greg Mahlich, John Stonestreet

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