Sarkozy demands Eurostar restart Tuesday

PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned the head of the French train authority to the Elysee Palace today and ordered him to get the Eurostar moving again after a three-day suspension of the cross-Channel train service that has wreaked havoc on the holiday travel plans of some 40,000 people.

Officials at Eurostar — a rail link between England, France and Belgium — said they were confident that service would restart Tuesday morning, with two-thirds of scheduled trains up and running.

Eurostar’s chief executive officer Richard Brown said the company “will be doing our very best to get everyone home by Christmas.”

Such changes might come in the nick of time, with more snow forecast tonight and Tuesday in Calais, where the train ducks into the tunnel on the French side of the Channel.

Sarkozy called in the president of France’s SNCF train authority and told him to present measures to ensure that such incidents “unacceptable for travelers, do not recur.” Today was the first time top French officials have spoken about the fiasco.

Eurostar suspended traffic between Paris and London pending tests to determine what caused five trains to get stuck inside the Channel Tunnel late Friday. More than 2,000 people were trapped inside the trains for hours, some with little information about what was happening and no food or water.

Eurostar head of operations Nicolas Petrovic blamed the problems on “exceptional factors,” saying dry, powdery snow unusual in northern France had been sucked into the trains’ engines, where it sparked a failure on the electrical circuit. He said measures were being put into place to prevent a repeat of the debacle.

Also today, Eurotunnel, which maintains the Channel Tunnel, said in a statement it has suspended its own passenger shuttle service — separate from the Eurostar — “due to heavy traffic.” That means travelers can only cross the English Channel, which separates Britain from continental Europe, by sea or air.

With clear weather in Paris, the city’s two airports were operating normally today, following two days of extensive cancellations. Still, snowy conditions in other European and international cities led to delays of about an hour at Charles de Gaulle airport and half an hour at Orly, the Paris airport authority said.

At a news conference at Paris’ Gare du Nord — the Eurostar’s Paris hub — Petrovic apologized to the estimated 40,000 travelers affected by the shutdown and said the company would reimburse and pay for out-of-pocket expenses incurred by those who were stranded. Asked how much Friday’s breakdowns and the ensuing suspension could cost the company, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it were very high.” He declined to provide an estimate of the loss.

Petrovic gave a long, technical explanation of what went wrong on Friday, saying the very dry snow got past the train’s snow-screens and into the locomotives, where it turned into condensation and caused the trains’ electrical circuits to fail.

“It’s the first time we have these snow conditions in 15 years,” he said, adding that normally snow on in the Calais region tends to be wet and heavy.

He said measures aimed at preventing further problems were being tested and had so far proved “very satisfactory.” If tests this afternoon go as planned, Eurostar service will partially resume Tuesday, with two out of three scheduled trains running, starting Tuesday morning. That would represent about 26,000 seats.

Priority on Tuesday’s trains will be given to those passengers who have been stranded for days and people with children or the elderly, Petrovic told reporters as Eurostar staffers circulated among dozens of stranded passengers, passing out paper cups of coffee and croissants. With the huge backlog of passengers, Eurostar is blocking any sales until after Christmas.

Petrovic blamed the delay on rescuing passengers stuck inside the stuck trains on Eurotunnel, and did not exclude the possibility of possible legal action against the Channel Tunnel operator.

French Transport Minister Dominique de Bussereau called the stalled trains “unacceptable” and promised a thorough investigation into the causes.

“We cannot imagine that this mode of transport, which is fundamental between France and England, between England and Belgium and the rest of continental Europe doesn’t work because it’s snowing outside,” Bussereau said on Europe-1 radio, speaking from Beijing where he is on an official visit.

Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo also lashed out at Eurostar, calling the situation “absolutely unbelievable” and saying he was meeting later today with the heads of Eurotunnel and the SNCF.

He added he was upset with the company’s treatment of passengers throughout the incident.

“You can’t treat people like that, without information,” he told BFM television. British officials have also reacted angrily.

Eurostar also announced it had commissioned its own independent review into the problems, naming one French and one British expert to lead the inquiry.

The company had said previously it had traced the problem to “acute weather conditions in northern France,” which is experiencing its worst winter weather in years.

Eurostar commercial director Nick Mercer said three test trains sent through the Channel Tunnel on Sunday ran successfully, but that it became clear that snow was being sucked into the trains in a way that has never happened before.

“The engineers on board have recommended strongly that, in light of further snowfalls that are happening tonight, we make some modifications to trains (with) snow shields to stop snow being ingested into the power car,” he told the BBC.

With a huge backlog of passengers building, Eurostar is blocking any sales until after Christmas.

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