Eurotunnel loses pounds 1m every day

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The Independent Online
French judicial officials inspecting the burned-out wreckage of five freight wagons still left inside the Channel tunnel will continue their examinations over the weekend, writes James Cusick.

With the Inter-Governmental Safety Commission suspending its discussions in Calais for the weekend, talks between the Commission and representatives from Eurotunnel will resume on Monday. Yesterday, senior Eurotunnel officials met in Paris to discuss strategy for next week when they continue attempts to persuade the commission that services should be allowed to restart.

The key problem, according to Eurotunnel sources, is that the severe damage sustained to one of the two main tunnels rules out putting a "safety case" for a re-opening of the tunnel.

For a quick resumption of either Eurostar's passenger train service or the Le Shuttle car train, Eurotunnel may need to place two trains in the damaged tunnel on standby at either side of the main damaged area to accommodate any future accident and the subsequent need for an emergency evacuation.

Having insisted that the loss of no lives meant their safety regime functioned as planned, Eurotunnel has placed itself in no position to demand that safety procedures now be overridden to accommodate a quick return of normal services - and the return of revenue.

Over the weekend, the wreckage of the five remaining freight wagons will be separated to allow them to be brought out of the tunnel in a state that will allow engineers to continue a forensic evaluation of how the fire started. As with any accident on this scale, the inquiry teams will be expected to both discover cause and deliver advice on future precautions.

With Eurotunnel losing pounds 1m a day and still facing the unquantifiable task of recapturing public confidence, the prospect of a long drawn-out inquiry will be a further blow.

Whether the safety commission will allow the company to continue using the lattice freight wagons is now being seen as crucial to short-term economic viability. Before the fire, Eurotunnel's numerous banks which financed its mounting debts had been in discussion over a pounds 4.1bn refinancing package. If the commission outlaws the open wagons and demands a redesigned freight service - as fire experts had previously demanded - the bill for new wagons will be an extra worry for the banks.