Fines for stowaways may halt rail freight

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Britain's biggest rail freight operator may axe services from France and Italy because of the thousands of illegal immigrants who stow away on its trains.

Britain's biggest rail freight operator may axe services from France and Italy because of the thousands of illegal immigrants who stow away on its trains.

English, Welsh & Scottish (EWS), which runs the majority of goods trains in the United Kingdom, believes it faces financial penalties of up to £5m when new legislation takes effect in a week's time.

Only lorry companies are currently fined - at a rate of £2,000 a head - for immigrants concealed on vehicles but from 1 March fines will apply to train operators. The severity of the fines will be much higher.

Managers at EWS say that while asylum-seekers board trains all over the continent on their way to Britain, most get on in France and Italy. Last year 1,500 migrants were discovered hiding on trains when they reached the company's depot at Dollands Moor, near the English end of the tunnel. So far this year, 306 people have been detained and EWS calculates that some 2,500 will be found on its services this year if present trends continue.

The company's comments come in the wake of a call to British and French ministers from the chairman of Eurotunnel to take tougher action against illegal immigrants. Patrick Ponsolle said on Monday that people from all over Eastern Europe and North Africa were taking "incredible risks'' in their determination to get to Britain. Mafia chiefs were in charge of the illegal traffic and some gangsters had used bolt-cutters to penetrate perimeter fences around rail terminals.

A spokesman for EWS said the company was considering a ban on traffic originating in France and Italy. EWS is also considering a limitation on the use of some wagons that are easier to board. Graham Smith, planning director at EWS, said he was also considering whether he should pass the fines on to the French railway company which is responsible for security at terminals where many illegal immigrants board the trains.

Mr Smith said the new law was unfair: "We will be fined for something over which we have no direct or indirect control. It is up to the French railways and the French authorities to search the trains before they enter the channel tunnel.

"We cannot influence the French authorities: only the British Government can bring about the pressure for change."

He added: "The new law is a nonsense. From March I will tell the police: 'Here are my stowaways: please can I have a £2,000 fine for each of them?'"

EWS said some migrants hid inside wagons while others rode on the outside of trains, wrapped in foil to keep them warm. Others breathed through pipes in a hopeless attempt to evade carbon dioxide detectors used to discover people hiding inside trucks. EWS said that many of the asylum-seekers got on the trains at Frethun, near Calais, a terminal run by the French state railway company.

The desperation of refugees was graphically illustrated earlier this month when an Iraqi Kurd died and another broke both legs after they leapt 20ft (6m) from a bridge on to the roof of a train heading for Britain through the tunnel.

The men, in their 30s, tried to board the Kent-bound freight train at the Coquelles shuttle terminal near Calais after breaking into a "secure" area. French officials said the injured man had been caught twice before attempting to hide aboard vehicles.