The asylum-seekers, the Channel Tunnel and an industry being brought to its knees

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Abus Hassan emerged from the dark, an almost biblical figure with his shawl-like blanket flapping in the icy wind.

He was planning to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures after another night spent trying to jump aboard the trains travelling to England from the gigantic Frethun freight terminal near Calais. Even the cold was better than the Red Cross refugee centre at nearby Sangatte.

Mr Hassan had no idea he and his fellow asylum-seekers were being accused by freight operators of holding British business to ransom, having brought to a virtual standstill the transport of goods to and from the Continent.

Mr Hassan, who left nine children and two cars behind in Iraq, to search for a better life in Britain, was also unaware of the diplomatic storm between the French and English governments over the constant attempts by asylum-seekers to break into the freight terminal.

The Channel Tunnel freight link between England and France was opened in June 1995 to claims that 12 million tons of goods would cross the water every year. It was to provide a gateway to 250,000km (150,000 miles) of track across Europe. "It was fantastic," said Andy Lickfold, the spokesman for EWS, Britain's main freight operator. "But, we will be lucky this year if we manage 1 million tons. The very best we have managed is 3 million."

The freight tunnel has proved to be an increasingly popular method for those seeking a new home in Britain, and now the locomotive cargo trade has descended into chaos.

Last Friday, SNCF, the French train operator, in effect suspended all services, much to the fury of EWS. The two companies have come to verbal blows, with EWS accusing SNCF of failing to secure its side of the channel.

Yesterday the only protection for the waiting freight trains was a 7ft (2m) green fence- newly installed by SNCF, but dismissed as "pathetic" by one English train executive.

The night before, dozens of asylum-seekers in small groups had been able to slip through holes in the perimeter fence, silhouetted against the powerful lights, and disappear.

Despite surveying several miles of tracks yesterday, it was impossible to detect any of the couple of dozen police and security responsible for guarding the terminal.

The site may lack the drama of the attempts of Sangatte residents to storm the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, but Frethun's invaders – in their own, quiet way – are causing just as much chaos.

Getting into the depot may be easy but attempting to board a train is fraught with peril. Eight people have been killed trying to stow away and many others injured. Evading the electric fences and razor-sharp barbed wire is the first of several challenges. Recently one asylum-seeker was electrocuted on top of a carriage.

Hamid Jaffari, 18, said one of his friends at Sangatte had recently lost a foot under a train but even this, he said, had not deterred him.

Nevertheless, now that security at the ferry terminals and for Eurotunnel trains – some of which also carry freight – has been stepped up, the freight depot at Frethun remains the most attractive option.

Mr Lickfold said: "I am sorry, Anne Robinson, we are The Weakest Link, or to be precise SNCF is The Weakest Link." About 1,500 people a year have been picked up at the EWS depot at Dollands Moor, Folkestone. SNCF, which stopped and returned 130 people to Sangatte in February 2000, caught 4,013 during the same period last month.

On 7 November, after a "mass invasion", SNCF reduced the 15 daily trains to five. EWS estimates that it has now lost £6m in business and that 8,000 jobs hang in the balance.

The transport of perishable goods, considered well-suited to the 35-minute cross-Channel journey, was the first to fall away. "Nobody is putting perishables on the trains. That sort of thing took to the roads a while ago," said Mr Lickfold.

EWS estimated it had lost the equivalent of 50,000 lorryloads of cargo since 7 November, enough to stretch from Dover to Glasgow.

While the French operator has also lost money – €15m (£9.3m) last year – its trade with the rest of Europe remains unhindered. For Britain, however, the gateway has been slammed shut.

"The Government wants the rail freight business to increase by 80 per cent in the next 10 years," Mr Lickfold said. "The rest of EWS is buoyant, but if we are going to achieve the growth targets the Government wants, we need to break into new markets. One of the planks we need is going into Europe. At the moment someone has nicked our planks."

On Wednesday, only four EWS trains got through yet two asylum-seekers were caught at Dollands Moor.

The British company has called on SNCF to step up security, enlisting the help of the military if need be.

Yesterday, SNCF's head of security at the site, Jean-Paul Bossy, admitted the situation was "critique".

An SNCF spokeswoman defended the company's position by announcing that a further 12 security people had been drafted in to reinforce the 30 or so staff who are already patrolling the huge site.

The company, she said, had spent a total of €3.13m improving security and was in discussion with the police to improve the situation.

One train recently had to be stopped seven times as asylum-seekers re-boarded after each check, she said.

The authorities hope to clear the remaining backlog of seven English-bound locomotives by today with services returning to some semblance of normal by Monday.

Contrary to what the British might think, the spokeswoman said, SNCF was not being deliberately difficult. "We would love services to go back to 25 trains a day."

So should the French government invest enough money to provide proper security, not just "two bobbies on a bicycle" as one UK official disparagingly described their operation?

"That is a political matter," the spokeswoman said. "We are only a transport company."