Eurostar to restart some services, but backlogs remain

Thousands of travellers between Britain, France and Belgium left stranded by the Eurostar rail shutdown will be on the move again Tuesday, but it could take several days to clear the massive backlog.

Eurostar announced it would run a "restricted" service Tuesday after a three-day shutdown hit 75,000 people - but only passengers originally due to travel Saturday or Sunday will be eligible.

The remainder of the backlog will be cleared over the next few days. But with the Christmas holiday looming Friday, the clock is ticking for travellers wanting to head home or visit friends and family abroad.

Eurostar, the rail link which connects Britain and mainland Europe, said after tests on trains its service would be back on track - though only operating to two-thirds capacity and carrying 26,000 people.

Their problems were linked to heavy snow which fell at the weekend and which got past screens into train engines, causing electrical faults.

The situation was so bad that French President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned the company's chairman to his offices and ordered him to get the trains operating again by Tuesday.

"It has been a test for our trains that they haven't passed. We need to look at how to modify them for the future," Richard Brown, Eurostar chief executive, told Britain's Sky News television.

He added that a fully normal Eurostar service would probably not be restored until after Christmas.

The travel chaos began when five trains broke down on Friday night amid freezing temperatures and snow in northern France, trapping two thousand passengers overnight in the 50-kilometre (31-mile) tunnel under the English Channel.

Many passengers have voiced outrage at their treatment.

"I come each day intending to be strong, but now, with the fatigue and the lack of information...," 27-year-old British traveller Sze-Wei Lu said as she fought back tears at the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

She was just one of the many thousands waiting to find out if they could get home for Christmas or begin their Christmas holiday trip abroad.

French and British government ministers expressed outrage Monday over the breakdown and ordered a probe, with British transport minister Sadiq Khan saying he was "angry" that passengers had still not been told what was going on.

Sarkozy summoned Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of Eurostar. The company is jointly owned by the French and Belgian state railway and a private British firm.

"The president asked that a resumption of traffic be effective by tomorrow, December 22," said a statement issued by Sarkozy's office after their meeting.

Eurostar has launched its own review by independent experts into the breakdown of the high-speed trains.

The shuttle service which carries cars and trucks on trains under the Channel was functioning normally Monday, its operator Eurotunnel said, but was taking no more bookings for the moment because it was "saturated".

Eurostar meanwhile said it would compensate the thousands of passengers who had been stuck overnight in the tunnel at the weekend.

They will get double the price they paid for their tickets as well as up to 170 euros (243 dollars) and would have any hotel or taxi expenses reimbursed, it said.

Others who have not been able to travel can exchange their tickets for a later date or have them reimbursed and will have any expenses incurred reimbursed.

Eurostar has suspended any further ticket sales until after Christmas.

Meteorologists warned of more snow and ice overnight in the Calais region of France where the Channel tunnel begins.

The winter cold snap that shut down the Eurostar trains has also caused dozens of deaths and major transport disruption across Europe.

bur-kah/boc

 

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