Anger at winter transport chaos

Thousands of passengers on both sides of the Channel were scrambling to get home in time for Christmas last night after Eurostar blamed the closure of their train network on the wrong type of snow.

More than 55,000 people have been stranded following a three-day cessation of the vital rail link between Britain and France which began on Friday evening when six trains became stuck in the tunnel because melted snow shorted vital electrical circuits inside the 186mph trains.

Apologising for some of the worst delays in the company’s 15-year history, Eurostar’s chief executive Richard Brown last night announced that trains would begin running a “limited” service through the Channel Tunnel from Tuesday morning. But tickets would be prioritised for the elderly, the needy and those who had their journeys cancelled over the weekend.

Amid widespread confusion over when and how replacement tickets would be handed out hundreds of passengers were planning to camp outside ticket offices in Paris and London last night. Many of those who had been stranded angrily accused the company of not doing enough to seek other forms of transport and asked why transport executives could not have organised more coaches to take travellers to Dover or Calais to catch ferries across the Channel.

Those hoping to find alternative ways home yesterday had their misery compounded by widespread disruption to travel services across Britain because of the winter weather. More than 500 rail passengers who were hoping to make it to the ferry ports had their journeys severely disrupted yesterday morning after Southeastern trains cancelled a number of services between Ashford and Dover.

The backlog of stranded passengers was then made worse when Euro Tunnel, which takes freight and car passengers through the tunnel in trains which have not been affected by the cold weather, stopped admitting new arrivals yesterday afternoon because of the increasing logjam.

The breakdown in Eurostar’s services led politicians on both sides of the Channel to demand answers from the company’s executives about o why they had failed to adequately prepare the trains to operate within heavy snowfall.

Eurostar has commissioned their own independent inquiry into the delays but French president Nicolas Sarkozy demanded an urgent meeting of senior French and British officials to consider the “unacceptable” chain of events which blocked cross-Channel rail services for three days. Transport minister Sadiq Khan ordered the Eurostar invstigation to report directly to his office.

“This has been a terrible experience for thousands of passengers, both those stranded on the trains and at the stations and the many thousands more who face having their Christmas holiday plans disrupted,” he said.

Many frustrated and anxious would-be passengers were planning to camp at both Gare de Nord station in Paris and St Pancras in London last night. Sze-Wei Lu, 27, a British woman of Chinese origin, had been on one of the Eurostar trains which was turned back in northern France on Saturday. “It has been a nightmare,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I try to be strong but tiredness and the lack of information defeat me.” Like many other passengers, she demanded to know why Eurostar had not charted buses or trains to take stranded passengers to Channel ferry ports.

There were similar scenes of frustration at St Pancras yesterday afternoon. Staff were handing out food and trying to deal with angry complaints but many appeared unsure of how replacement tickets would be handed out.

Olivia Hermant, 25, a retail worker from Paris, was waiting outside the Eurostar terminal with her friend Anne-Claire Lesage. “I think we’ll have to sleep here tonight,” she said. “I've heard that we might be able to get a ferry but I don’t want to risk going to Dover. There are loads of Eurostar personnel but they only seem to be talking to each other.”

Last night P&O Ferries said it still had room for foot passengers but was waiting to see whether coaches would be laid on by Eurostar. “We can take approximately 200 foot passenger per hour and we have 25 return crossings each day so if Eurostar can organise coaches to transport passengers to either Dover or Calais we can help get some of them across the Channel,” a spokesman said.