France orders probe, Eurostar halts trains

France's government doubted the cold was the sole reason and ordered a separate investigation.

France orders probe, Eurostar halts trains

Eurostar halted trains for a third day to probe a weekend breakdown of services through the Channel Tunnel, prompting a frustrated French government to call its own investigation into an outage that stranded thousands of passengers.

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, 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.

"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 Minister Dominique Bussereau said on Monday during a visit to China with Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

Eurostar, which is commissioning an independent review, has said that 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 1201 GMT the stock had recovered to trade up 1.2 percent.

Eurotunnel said its infrastructure was still working and its own shuttles through the tunnel, which run parallel to the Eurostar, were still operating.

"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"

Passengers were stuck on the 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 voiced their feelings.

"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.

He said Eurostar train manufacturer Alstom was co-operating on the issue. Eurostar's commercial director Nick Mercer hoped business might be resumed on Tuesday, pending the result of three test runs on Monday.

Snow screens

"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 the snow screens and snow shields on the 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.

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

Eurostar, which likes to describe itself as a service bringing Britain and France closer, carries about 40,000 people a day between England and continental Europe.

While many of those stuck in London, Brussels or Paris only wanted to get home, others had hoped for a special Christmas holiday abroad.

"The children were very excited. We were due to stay with friends and they had our lunch all ready," said Leilani Viernes-Gonzalez, a single mother from London who was trying to take her three children to Paris.


Reuters

Last Mod: 21 Aralık 2009, 14:29
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