Wrong kind of snow in tunnel...

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

Transport Correspondent

About 1,000 passengers on two Eurostar trains were stuck in the Channel Tunnel for several hours on Monday as a result of technical problems caused by snow and ice, raising doubts about the ability of the tunnel to cope with extreme weather conditions.

One full train of 800 passengers which set out at 1pm on Monday did not reach Paris until 4am yesterday, taking 15 hours for a journey that should have taken three. They were stuck in the tunnel for three hours and at one point the emergency batteries ran low, leaving them in darkness. Eventually, after the train was rescued, they transferred by bus to a conventional train at Calais.

A second group of more than150 people, who left London just before 9am on a train to Brussels took nine hours to reach Calais, after being stuck first on British tracks and then in the tunnel for two hours.

Both trains failed completely and had to be hauled out of the tunnel by locomotives which are kept available for the task.

The Le Shuttle tourist service for cars between Folkestone and Calais was also cancelled for much of Monday. Already, by 8.30am on Monday many trains had been delayed because a Shuttle train failed at the French portal, causing the blockage of one of the two lines through the tunnel.

The delays and cancellations are a further setback to the troubled tunnel's owner, Eurotunnel - which is at present not paying interest on pounds 8bn debts - as one of its key selling points has been its ability to operate reliably during the winter months when Channel crossings are disrupted by the weather. The problem seems to be that the delicate electronics of the trains and tunnel cannot withstand the potent mix of snow, salt and ice which is brought into the tunnel during periods of extreme cold.

But a spokeswoman for Eurotunnel defended the tunnel: "The ferries were cancelled and were unable to dock, the motorways blocked, and the Paris airports were closed. Although the tunnel is protected, the extreme weather conditions outside caused severe problems but we did manage to stay open throughout, even if we weren't providing a full service." She emphasised that the tunnel had operated largely without problems during the previous bouts of poor weather this winter but in this case, "snow, ice and moisture carried into the tunnel to create problems when combined with the micro climate of the tunnel."

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