French and UK governments set to investigate why several high-speed trains stopped working in snowy weather, causing three days of cancellations and stranding thousands
By Mark Deen and Steve Rothwell
(Bloomberg) — Eurostar Group Ltd., operator of high-speed trains through the Channel Tunnel, said it will resume a limited service tomorrow after its trains stopped working in snowy weather, causing three days of cancellations.
The disruption, which has affected the travel plans of about 40,000 people in the run up to the Christmas holiday, will prove "very expensive," Eurostar said today at a briefing in Paris, while declining to give an estimate of the likely cost.
Five trains broke down in freezing conditions on Friday evening, trapping passengers inside the 30-mile (48-kilometer) tunnel for up to 16 hours and stranding thousands in London, Paris and Brussels. The French and British governments plan to investigate the problems, while Eurostar commissioned a review and said it will work to improve snow shields on locomotives.
"We will be running as many trains as we can possibly can tomorrow and we expect to increase that on Wednesday and Thursday to get as many people as possible through to the continent and bring those in France and Belgium back to the U.K. by Christmas," Eurostar Chief Executive Officer Richard Brown said today at a press conference.
The company will evaluate the success of modifications to its trains today and undertake the work on as many units as possible overnight, the CEO said.
Advised to Postpone
While two-thirds of the normal service, or 26,000 seats, should operate tomorrow, Chief Operating Officer Nicolas Petrovic said people should postpone journeys where possible. A full service won't be restored until Dec. 28.
Eurostar's communications following the train failures were "very bad," Petrovic said, though the rolling stock itself is among the "best maintained" in the industry. He said the snow encountered had been especially dry and powdery, without blaming that for the problems.
The breakdowns were probably caused after cold air and snow was sucked through intakes on the locomotives and quickly warmed as the trains entered the tunnel, resulting in condensation that shorted out electrical circuits, Eurostar has said.
The incidents represent a "new mode of failure" not encountered before in Eurostar's 15-year history, Brown said.
"It's unacceptable that traffic is blocked for several days," French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said in Beijing today. "If it's a problem between the outside cold and the tunnel heat, we must find a way to solve it."
As many as 2,000 Eurostar passengers were trapped on trains in the tunnel for several hours on Dec. 18 and 19. Stranded passengers were handled "appallingly," U.K. Transport Minister Sadiq Khan told the British Broadcasting Corp. Britain will join the French and Belgian governments in investigating, Kahn said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Eurostar Chairman Guillaume Pepy, who is also head of the head of the country's state-owned rail operator, SNCF, to provide an account of the situation and present measures to ensure it won't be repeated. Sarkozy also asked for train services to be resumed tomorrow, his office said in a statement.
The independent review ordered by the company will be led by Christopher Garnett, a former chief executive officer of British rail operator GNER, and Claude Gressier, a French government transport official.
Passengers affected by the disruption can request a refund or reschedule their journey and claim "out-of-pocket" expenses of 150 pounds ($242), Eurostar has said.
"The acute weather conditions in northern France have caused the disruption," the company said. "Every year we carry out a 'winterization' program of the entire fleet, which to date has successfully protected our trains. We now know, however, that we need to further enhance the snow screens and snow shields in the power cars of the trains."
The temperatures experienced in northern France are similar to last year and as far as snow is concerned, the same happened in 1999, said Patrick David, regional director of Meteo France, the French meteorological service.
Eurostar will be seeking talks with Groupe Eurotunnel SA (GRPTF), the Channel tunnel's operator, to mount a "thorough and rigorous review" of the breakdowns, Brown told the BBC.
Eurotunnel owns and operates the tunnel itself and is responsible for rescuing vehicles that breakdown inside. The company also runs a shuttle train that carries cars and trucks between Britain and France and has been operating at full capacity as people seek other ways to complete their journeys.
To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Deen in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org; Steven Rothwell in London at email@example.com.