After breakdowns, Eurostar trains restart
The first Eurostar in four days left Paris for London on Tuesday morning, after multiple train breakdowns left thousands of passengers stranded ahead of the Christmas holidays. The company has warned that it will take days to clear the backlog.
AFP - Packed Eurostar trains nosed gingerly out of Paris, Brussels and London on Tuesday as the embarrassed rail firm began to clear a backlog of 75,000 passengers stranded by a three-day shutdown.
The normally high-speed service, seen as a triumph of European engineering, was brought shuddering to a halt on Friday night by what a British spokesman has called a fall of "fluffier" than expected snow.
Thousands of passengers were at London St Pancras, Paris Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi as the first pair of trains pulled away, each filled to capacity with 750 ticket-holders who had been due to travel at the weekend.
"There is no timetable, you just turn up," a Eurostar employee said in Brussels. "But don't bother if you have a ticket for Tuesday, you won't be able to travel till tomorrow."
Priority will be given to passengers who were due to travel on Saturday and Sunday, while those booked to travel on Monday and Tuesday will be eligible for travel on Wednesday, a Eurostar statement said.
"It has been chaos. We had a rotten few days," said 47-year-old David James, a British traveller who was marooned on a trip in Paris with his wife, seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter.
Politicians on both sides of the Channel have criticised the train operator -- a consortium of a British firm and the French and Belgian state networks -- for what is seen as its disastrous response to the breakdown.
Some 2,000 passengers were trapped in the tunnel under the English Channel on Friday night, many of them for hours on end, without food, drink, adequate sanitation or news of when or how they would be rescued.
On Tuesday, the French rail firm SNCF took out a full page ad in national papers in an attempt to explain what had happened and defend its role.
"Tests carried out on Sunday showed that short-circuits were caused by an exceptionally fine and powdery snow. It built up in the motor compartments and brutally condensed on entry to the tunnel," it said.
Temperatures plunged on Friday, as northwestern Europe was gripped by the first cold snap of the season, but in the undersea tunnel between France and Britain it is 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit).
"Eurostar's board has decided to order an independent inquiry. It will explain why the operations to get people out of the tunnel and on to London took so long and were accompanied by so little information," it said.
"Corrective actions will be put in place," the statement promised.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered Eurostar to restart services on Tuesday after three days of chaos marred the busy pre-Christmas shopping season, and many passengers turned up to stations early to try to get home.
But the operator warned that only two thirds of the normal number of services would run, and that even those with tickets dating back to the weekend were not guaranteed places.
With this limited programme of departures, the company hopes to carry 26,000 passengers on Tuesday, whereas 75,000 have seen their travel plans disrupted by the breakdowns.
Passengers mostly queued calmly, many with young children in tow.
John Mitchell, 42, was among those warned he may be turned away.
Travelling with his two sons and wife, Fabienne, he said: "We are not guaranteed but we are staying confident. I have been told there will probably be nine trains so I am hopeful we will be with family in Paris by tonight."
Eurostar has said that it does not expect services to be back to normal before Christmas Day on Friday, and has advised travellers not to try to book new tickets for before this date.