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 demanded to know why transport executives could not have organised more coaches to take travellers to Dover or Calais to catch ferries.
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 disrupted after Southeastern trains cancelled a number of services between Ashford and Dover.
The backlog of stranded passengers grew when Euro Tunnel, which takes freight and car passengers through the tunnel in trains which have not been affected by the cold weather, stopped taking new arrivals yesterday afternoon because of over-congestion.
The breakdown in Eurostar's services led politicians on both sides of the Channel to demand answers from the company's executives on why they had failed to prepare the trains to operate in heavy snow. Eurostar has now commissioned its own independent inquiry into the delays, but the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called for an urgent meeting of 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 investigation team 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.
Nick Mercer, Eurostar's commercial director, said: "It seems to be a strange combination of factors. It was the amount of snow, which was higher than we experienced before, it was lighter than normal; fluffier, and the temperature inside the tunnel and the humidity was higher than normal."
Many frustrated and anxious would-be passengers were planning to camp at Gare du Nord station in Paris and St Pancras in London last night. Sze-Wei Lu, 27, had been on one of the Eurostar trains turned back in northern France on Saturday. "It has been a nightmare," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. Like many other passengers, she wanted to know why Eurostar had not chartered buses or trains to take stranded passengers to Channel ports.
There were similar scenes of frustration at St Pancras yesterday. Staff were giving 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 transport passengers to either Dover or Calais we can help get some of them across the Channel," a spokesman said.
What kind of snow is the 'wrong' snow?
*Snow can come in many different forms. The type that brought the Eurostar to a standstill consisted of small, powdery flakes light enough to be blown through the train's ventilation grilles and filters, which normally protect the traction engines. Once the trains entered the Channel Tunnel, the higher temperatures melted the snow and the water interfered with the electrics. The same kind of problem occurred in 1991 when British Rail complained that dry, powdery snow had caused its trains to stop, leading to newspaper headlines saying that BR had blamed the "wrong type of snow". The powdery snow affecting Eurostar trains is more likely in exceptionally cold weather.