One week after celebrating its 20th anniversary, Eurostar is in some disarray. More than 1,200 passengers were stranded without heat or light on two stricken trains in northern France, and finally arrived at their destinations up to nine hours late.
Just after 6pm last night, two of the busiest Eurostar trains of the day departed from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels, three minutes apart. Each was carrying more than 600 passengers. They passed through the Channel Tunnel on schedule, but at around 7pm GMT both came to a halt on the high-speed link between Calais and Lille.
An overhead power line had come down in two places - described by one French newspaper as “une double rupture de caténaire”.
Because there is no back-up power supply, the lights and heaters failed. Eventually a diesel locomotive arrived from Lille to tow the Paris train to Lille-Europe station. Passengers were transferred to another train, and arrived at Paris Gare du Nord at 3am, six hours late. Eurostar is offering all the affected passengers a full refund for their tickets, plus a free return trip in the future.
The Brussels train fared much worse. Rail staff had hoped that, once the Paris train was moved, the Brussels-bound service would be able to continue under its own power. It could not. The 600-plus passengers had to sit in the dark, with supplies of food and water dwindling, while the diesel locomotive hauled the Paris train to Lille and then returned to collect the Brussels train.
While the train was stalled, other trains were forced to take diversions around the incident that added around two hours to journey times.
The Brussels-bound passengers were eventually towed to Lille, where they changed trains. They arrived at Brussels-Midi nine hours late, and will be offered as compensation twice the cost of their ticket as well as a free return trip.
Today, an inbound train from Paris to London and a round-trip between London and Brussels have been cancelled. Eurostar is offering affected passengers the option to postpone their journeys free of charge, or get a full refund. The company says: “Delays are persisting into the afternoon due to restricted track access following last night’s power failure.”
In the next month, Eurostar passengers will face more problems because of a series of national strikes in Belgium on four successive Mondays. On 24 November and 1 December, the train operator expects to run a normal service, though journeys beyond Brussels may be disrupted. On 8 and 15 December, though, no Eurostar services will run to the Belgian capital.
The Independent understands that Eurostar is about to reveal a major change of ticketing policy: it plans to make all tickets changeable. For the first 20 years of Eurostar’s life, cheaper tickets have been completely inflexible. Now the train operator is to emulate budget airlines and allow changes right up to the time of departure. It will announce that, from 25 November, it will allow changes for a fee of £30 plus the difference between the original ticket price and the prevailing fare - which could be significantly higher.
Some transatlantic flights have been affected by the severe winter weather in the American Midwest. A British Airways flight due in at Heathrow from Chicago at 11.35 this morning is 10 hours late, while an American Airlines service on the same route is running five hours behind schedule.