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Trains roll again through fire-hit Eurotunnel

Latest update : 2008-09-14

Eurostar freight and passenger services resumed through the Channel Tunnel Saturday, two days after a blaze shut down the busy link between Britain and continental Europe. Car shuttle service will remain suspended over the weekend.

Freight services resumed through the Channel Tunnel and Eurostar passenger services made a slow comeback Saturday, two days after a blaze shut down the busy link between Britain and mainland Europe.

However, the car shuttle service between Folkestone and Calais would remain suspended over the weekend, operators Eurotunnel said.

Eurostar said it would run 12 trains each way between Paris and London on Saturday, and six trains each way between London and Brussels. The same levels were expected for Sunday.

The first Eurostar train to make the trip from Paris Saturday arrived in London's St Pancras station at 8:18 a.m. (0718 GMT), 20 minutes behind schedule, an AFP journalist on board said.

"Please excuse us for the small delay," the train's conductor announced as the train pulled into the station.

There was a slight smell of smoke in the first few kilometres of the tunnel but it soon disappeared.

Passengers were surprised to find that despite services being halted since Thursday, the train was not full and they were able to pick and choose their seats.

"Passenger traffic will remain disrupted. For the present, the number of passengers is still low but we expect it to pick up a great deal during the course of the day," a Eurostar spokeswoman said.

The first trains to run carried a "few hundred passengers," she said, adding that levels were between 20 and 30 percent, against an average of 80 percent during weekends.

Eurostar is offering to refund the estimated 15,000 passengers stranded on Thursday after the fire or to swap tickets for a later date.

The passenger traffic was using only the south tunnel which was unaffected by the 1,000 degree Celsius inferno that raged inside the parallel north tunnel.

The world's longest uninterrupted undersea link reopened to freight services late Friday, a spokesman for operators Eurotunnel told AFP.

"Our inspections are now completed," said Eurotunnel chief executive officer Jacques Gounon on French television.

"Installations in the south tunnel, which was not touched by fire, are in excellent condition," he said, as the exact cause of the inferno remained under investigation.

The fire -- the third to strike the 50-kilometre (30-mile) tunnel since it opened in May 1994 -- claimed no fatalities, but it left tens of thousands of travellers stranded or forced to change their travel plans.

Extra flights, buses and cross-Channel ferries were laid on. On Friday alone, some 30,000 travellers had been booked to ride a total of 50 Eurostar trains -- all of which were cancelled.

To add to Britain's travel turmoil Friday, the country's third largest tour operator went bust.

Airports saw chaotic scenes after the XL Leisure Group called in the administrators, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded, while travellers booked for the tunnel scrambled to find alternative routes.

British and French firefighters on Friday put out the inferno deep inside the north tunnel, after battling all Thursday night in relay teams as the temperature soared to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 degrees Fahrenheit).

Nearly all 27 lorries riding the 700-metre-long France-bound train on which the fire broke out were burned, and Eurotunnel said it would take weeks to rebuild the stricken section of tunnel.

"We need to redo the electricity, the concrete, everything you do when a house burns down," a Eurotunnel spokeswoman said.

The fire-stricken train was about 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Calais exit on the French side of the 50.5-kilometre (31.4 mile) tunnel when it caught fire, officials said.

Thirty-two truck drivers on the shuttle smashed windows to escape and get into the service tunnel from where they were evacuated. Six people were injured in the third major blaze since the tunnel under the Channel opened in May 1994, all of them on freight shuttles.

Officials said they suspected the fire started in a truck's braking system that overheated and spread to a tyre, but Eurotunnel's Gounon said it was too soon to say with any certainty what the cause was.

Service was disrupted for months after the first serious incident in the tunnel on November 18, 1996, when a fire broke out on a late-night freight shuttle injured eight people.

On August 21, 2006, the tunnel was closed for several hours after a truck engine caught fire, sending smoke through the tunnel.

Date created : 2008-09-13