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Britain-France rail link freezes up

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BOB MOON: Thousands of people traveling between Britain and France have suffered another day of chaos and delay. Heavy snowfall has shut down the only passenger rail link between the two countries for three days in a row. The Eurostar rail service runs through a tunnel under the English Channel. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from London.

STEPHEN BEARD: The misery began on Friday night. Five trains broke down inside the Tunnel. Two thousand passengers were trapped. They were rescued eventually but all Eurostar services have since been suspended — 55,000 people who booked have been unable to use the service. Many thousands have been stranded without explanation.

PASSENGER: The communication has been absolutely horrendous. They’been posting very cryptic messages on the Web site. The people here at the station are giving us conflicting messages. We really haven’t been able to get any information out as far as what the plan is here.

Eurostar blames the stoppage on the worst winter weather on the French side of the tunnel since the service began 15 years ago.

Finance Director Ian Nunn says large quantities of snow has been getting into the trains’ electrical systems.

IAN NUNN: This year the snow shields and screens that we fit have proved not to be up to the job given the heavy snow and very cold temperatures.

But rail analyst Christian Wolmar says while stranded passengers may forgive that technical failure, they won’t forget the way Eurostar treated them in a crisis.

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR: They should have handed out sandwiches, hot soup and all that sort of thing. We haven’t seen that at all. They’ve really almost put down the shutters and turned a lot of people away. And I think that’s been very damaging indeed.

Eurostar resumes a limited service tomorrow. The company is promising to pay passengers a full refund, compensation and out-of-pocket expenses. Some estimates suggest this could set firm back around $20 million. The reputational damage could prove more costly.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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