The long and dismal history of British customer service reached a new nadir yesterday. Four trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, leaving about 2,000 Eurostar passengers trapped overnight without power, air conditioning, food, water or – crucially – information. They were, both literally and figuratively, kept in the dark.
Passengers finally began to arrive at St Pancras yesterday morning, in some cases more than 16 hours after they left Paris or Brussels. They were, understandably, seething. Alison Sturgeon, from Ascot, whose train left Paris shortly after 7.30pm Friday night and arrived at St Pancras at 11am yesterday, said: "There was no communication at all." She said her train was stuck in the tunnel before being taken back to Calais and then back into the tunnel again, where they were put on a car train to take them through to England. She said: "Conditions on that train were terrible. We slept on the floor on newspapers, like hobos."
Lee Godfrey, returning to Britain with his family from Disneyland Paris, said passengers had been forced to leave a broken-down train and move through the service tunnel in the dark, before getting on to a "filthy" car transport train. "We've had children asleep on the floor – they've been sick – we had one loo. It's been a complete nightmare," he told BBC radio. "We had people fainting on the train. It was just pandemonium."
Eurostar said four trains broke down between 8.30pm and 11.30pm, and blamed this on the contrast between outside temperatures (it was -C near Calais) and the warmer tunnel. Later, it promised a "proper and full" inquiry, and said all affected passengers will be offered a full refund, £150 compensation and a free return ticket.
A further train dispatched from Paris yesterday broke down at Thurrock, Essex, last night, reportedly with 750 passengers aboard.
Many outward-bound passengers were getting increasingly frustrated yesterday at St Pancras. First, passengers were told all trains out of London were cancelled for the day; then it was announced that special services would be laid on. People queued and boarded these, then were told trains would not run after all. Many said that they would sleep at the station ready for Sunday departures. Then, after 7pm, it was announced that there would be no Sunday trains. Instead, Eurostar said test trains will run through the tunnel to get to the root of the problem.
The sorry saga began when trains departing Brussels and Paris on Friday evening began reaching the tunnel, and breaking down inside it. The result, according to a Eurostar spokesman yesterday morning, was that two trains were taken back to where they had begun their journeys: the 8.29pm train from Brussels and 9.13pm Paris train were both held at Calais before returning whence they came. A train that left Brussels at 6.59pm arrived in St Pancras after a delay of almost four hours; the 6.43pm Friday train from Paris arrived shortly after 8am on Saturday. The 7.13pm train from Paris was being hauled to St Pancras from Folkestone, carrying some passengers from a Paris train that left an hour later; others from the 8.13pm train had been put on five buses and were being driven to St Pancras. A further train that left Disneyland Paris on Friday night was believed to be on its way to St Pancras.
Two of the broken trains were pushed to London by smaller diesel trains. Other passengers were evacuated on foot and put on shuttles that brought them to stations in England, where they were eventually put on regular trains bound for London or given bus transportation to the capital.
Among those caught up in the chaos was Gregoire Sentilhes, who left Paris at 9pm with his wife and three children for a weekend in London. He said: "We spent the night inside the tunnel. At 6am we were taken out of the train by firemen. We walked for around a mile with our luggage. We went into another Eurostar train and we have been trapped on it since, going back and forth inside the tunnel. I met one couple who were trying to get to their son's wedding, which was at 11 this morning. Claudia Schiffer was also on the train, but a car came right by the train to pick her up from the entrance to the tunnel. Nothing for the other 2,000 people, though."
At St Pancras on Saturday morning, Caroline Fraser and Shaun Carpenter were among the first off the train that pulled in just after 10.30am – 16 hours after they left Paris. The train first stopped for 30 minutes before reaching the tunnel, but passengers were then told the broken-down train in front had been sorted out and they could continue.
Mr Carpenter, 28, said: "Within 20 minutes we had stopped again, but this time we were in the tunnel. That's when the drama started. We started to reverse, back to Paris we were told, but then the power went out and the kids started crying. It was so hot: there was no air and the train was packed with children because it had come from Disneyland. The whole thing was horribly managed. They kept changing their story, so we didn't know what to believe. If it hadn't been for an English policeman taking charge, it would have been even worse."
Ms Fraser added: "The policeman organised the evacuation. It was like the Titanic, women and kids first – and at that point even I felt a bit scared because we were split up. We walked, carriage by carriage, in the dark into the tunnel and then on to the car train. You could hear people crying and shouting. We sat on the floor for three hours, but at least we got some water."
Things were not much better at airports. Passengers on a tarmac-bound BA non-flight to Boston were stuck for more than seven hours overnight at Heathrow. It was due to take off at 4pm on Friday, was boarded at 7pm, and then began delays so lengthy that the crew had to be replaced because they would have exceeded their hours if they had stayed on board. By 2am yesterday it had still not budged. At this point, some of the hitherto heroically patient passengers demanded to see the captain. The flight took off just before 2.30am.
Weather warnings: Cold and winds cause countrywide disruption
Scotland Heavy snowfall predicted in the west tomorrow; temperatures to drop to -5C.
North-east Yorkshire coast hit by harsh winds and up to 2.5in (6cm) of snow; many train lines closed and widespread traffic jams; more severe weather expected.
North-west 1,000 householders in Cumbria still recovering from floods plunged into cold and darkness for eight hours; "heavy snow" alert issued for Cumbria today.
Midlands Lincolnshire farmers working to dig out snowbound crops; Christmas shoppers in Birmingham caught in blizzard; temperatures to plummet below zero.
Wales Police warn of hazardous driving conditions due to snow on the A4107, plus the M4 between Margam and Ynysforgan.
East Anglia 1,200 customers left without power due to high winds; Suffolk Police deal with 230 incidents after up to 6in of snowfall; National Express cancels several services; disruption at Stansted.
South-east More than 80 cancellations at Heathrow; Kent Police take 5,000 calls from public as temperatures dip to -7.5C; M20 used as lorry park due to congestion in Dover area; two-day race meeting cancelled at Ascot yesterday after 4in of overnight snow.
Northern Ireland Big freeze expected over weekend; drifting snow warning for Londonderry and Antrim.