France's high-speed trains meet wrong kind of snow

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The Independent Online
More than 30 high-speed trains and thousands of cars were stranded in south-eastern France yesterday after heavy snowfalls and exceptionally low temperatures brought the whole region to a freezing halt. The situation was described by France's usually sanguine emergency services in terms of "chaos" and "crisis"; a coach passenger trapped on a paralysed motorway said the scene resembled "something out of a disaster movie". "It's Siberia!" was one newspaper headline.

Several thousand people had to spend the night in their vehicles, and two elderly German coach passengers suffered heart attacks and died while their coaches were caught in the melee. Emergency shelters were opened in school gymnasiums and community halls to accommodate those immobilised by the weather, while the Red Cross, local authorities and even private individuals provided food.

As rescue services tried yesterday, mostly in vain, to dislodge the blocked vehicles, drivers across the country were advised by road-safety authorities not to leave without chains for their tyres. Anyone planning to travel south of Lyon by any form of transport at all was told in no uncertain terms not even to try.

The already difficult situation in the south-east, especially in the Rhone Valley, which generally enjoys a mild climate, had been aggravated over Thursday night after black ice on the A7 caused scores of accidents. Heavy lorries and coaches littered the three-lane motorway, and with jams extending for 10km and more, this main north-south artery was eventually closed between Lyon and Avignon.

The main alternative motorway from Paris to the south, the A75 across the Massif Central, was also impassable because of heavy snow south of Clermont Ferrand.

The high-speed train service, which usually covers the 750km distance between Paris and Marseille in less than five hours, was crippled south of Lyon on Thursday afternoon, when ice neutralised electric contacts beneath the track, and points froze. Unlike cold- climate countries like Canada and Russia, France does not have permanent track de-icing mechanisms, relying instead on de-icing wagons sent ahead of a train when conditions require.

The state railway company, SNCF, which has been mounting an elaborate charm offensive to win back passengers deterred by last year's six-week strike, came in for ferocious criticism from passengers who had found themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere without any information or assistance. SNCF was accused of doing nothing to provide alternative accommodation; 10,000 people spent the night in railway carriages.

Air traffic was also affected, with many provincial airports closed, especially in central and southern France.

All canals were frozen; even part of the Loire was iced over between Angers and Nantes, trapping dozens of barges. Only on the Riviera and a small ribbon of the Mediterranean plain did temperatures rise even fractionally above zero.

In Paris, where there has been little snow but freezing temperatures for more than a week, the authorities launched a new campaign to persuade those sleeping rough to useemergency shelters set up after two people died over Christmas.

President Jacques Chirac told ministers at the first cabinet meeting after the holiday that the "problem of the homeless and their dogs" needed to be solved. Many of those sleeping rough say they will not use hostels because they cannot take their dogs with them.