A large group of asylum-seekers fled into the Kent countryside after sabotaging the brakes of a freight service that had carried them through the Channel Tunnel, the train's owner said yesterday.
Kent police officers scoured roads near Folkestone for up to 40 illegal immigrants after the latest audacious attempt to breach security at the tunnel.
Last month, a group of Romanians were arrested in northern France after using railway signalling devices to stop freight trains so asylum- seekers could climb aboard.
The owner of the Channel Tunnel freight train, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways (EWS), said that the asylum- seekers must have cut through a rubber hose three inches wide, which was used to link the brake pipes between carriages. An EWS spokesman said: "You would need to know what you were doing and to have the right equipment. You are not talking about cutting the pipe with a pair of scissors."
An axe and a chisel were later recovered. By cutting the pipe, the asylum-seekers brought the train to a halt near Cheriton, a mile before it reached the EWS freight yard at Dollands Moor, outside Folkestone. Police were called at about 6.20pm on Sunday evening and made an extensive overnight search of the area. Three people – a man, a woman and a child – were found almost immediately.
Fourteen other illegal immigrants stowed away on a second train that reached the same freight terminal just before midnight. The incidents will renew concerns over security at the tunnel less than a week after the Government controversially removed the threat of fines from Eurotunnel, the company that operates the Calais-Folkestone crossing.
Eurotunnel reported annual losses of £132m yesterday and accused the British and French governments of undermining the company's business by failing to tackle the issue of asylum-seekers trying to enter the tunnel.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, justified the removal of Eurotunnel's fines of £2,000 per illegal immigrant – the same penalties charged to ferry operators and other train companies – on the basis that the numbers of people coming through the tunnel unlawfully had fallen sharply.
But Eurotunnel's security operation – including patrols and CCTV around the tunnel entrance – has led to asylum-seekers trying to board trains away from the tunnel entrance.
The EWS spokesman said some of the asylum-seekers on Sunday had travelled on the outside of the train, which suggested they had boarded near by – probably at the Frethun yard, near Calais, where freight trains wait to be allocated a time to enter the tunnel.
The Frethun site is owned by the French train operator, SNCF, and is protected only by a simple perimeter fence. The EWS train, originally from Milan, stopped at Frethun before going through the tunnel at 6pm French time. The EWS spokesman said: "It came out of the tunnel at 6pm English time and as it came out, the train was brought to a standstill because the brake pipes had been cut.
"The driver stayed where he was but everybody that was on it jumped off. They had hidden in the train and on top of the train. If you jump on it in Calais nobody is going to see you so it does not matter where you are – just somewhere you are not going to fall off."
Temporary repairs were made to the train so it could be moved to EWS's Dollands Moor yard a mile away at 9.30pm.
The EWS spokesman added: "Now we have got a safety issue this side because we are concerned for the safety of our crews and the illegal people on board. When they try to jump off they might get hit by a train, crack their heads on a rail, who knows."
Police said later they had found 15 to 20 suspected illegal immigrants in the area, although there was no confirmation they had been on the train.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies