Europe suffers worst blackout for three decades

One of the worst and most dramatic power failures in three decades plunged millions of Europeans into darkness over the weekend, halting trains, trapping dozens in lifts and prompting calls for a central European power authority.

The blackout, which originated in north-western Germany, also struck Paris and 15 French regions, and its effects were felt in Austria, Belgium, Italy and Spain. In Germany, around 100 trains were delayed, and in the French capital firemen responded to 40 calls from those trapped in lifts late on Saturday night. However, the Eiffel Tower and other monuments remained illuminated, the metro kept running and there were no reports of injuries.

The power loss came about when Germany's network became overloaded, probably as a result of a routine shut down of a high-voltage transmission line under the Ems river to allow a ship to pass by safely.

The fallout from the incident, said to be one of the worst since the 1970s, left engineers and politicians aghast, and underlined the interdependence of European countries' electricity grids.

Parts of western Germany, including the Ruhr region, were without power for half an hour, delaying scores of trains for up to two hours.

In France, five million people were left without electricity, including many in Paris.

In Italy, while the main effects were concentrated in Piedmont and Liguria in the north-west, the blackout even touched Puglia, in the country's south-east.

Belgium was affected, with the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Liege among the areas hit. Meanwhile, the Spanish network Red Electrica said parts of Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza and the region of Andalucia suffered power loss too.

Work was under way yesterday to try to identify why such a routine operation provoked such a massive power failure.

Romano Prodi, the Italian premier, said from his native city of Bologna that the incident suggested that Europe needed to strengthen its co-ordination of power supplies. "My first impression is that there is a contradiction between having European [power] links and not having one European [power] authority," he said. "We depend on each other with being able to help each other, without a central authority."

The likely Socialist candidate in France's presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, also called for the creation of a centralised European electricity authority. "One of the things at stake in the relaunching of Europe will be big policy areas like energy," she said.

Energy has become a priority area for EU policy-makers during the past year. A summit last month in Finland was dominated by discussions with Russia's President Vladimir Putin on energy security.

The European Commission is investigating the structure of the EU's power market and whether the Continent's giant firms need to be broken up to encourage greater competition.

Meanwhile, the inquest into the latest incident has begun. The German power giant E.On said it had shut down transmission lines in the past without causing problems, and was investigating why this operation went so badly wrong.

Theo Horstmann, of RWE AG, another German power firm, said the shortage had caused substations across Europe to shut down automatically to prevent further damage.

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