French rail chiefs under fire after Eurostar’s delay

21st April 2008, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of Eurostar passengers were stranded overnight as their train arrived nine hours late on Saturday.

21 April 2008

PARIS - A state-level investigation is underway in France after hundreds of Eurostar passengers were stranded overnight before their train crawled into Paris some nine hours late on Saturday.

In an embarrassing new record for the flagship service- which normally takes 2 hours 15 minutes - 640 travellers spent 12 hours and 13 maddening minutes stuck on two trains after switching at Lille.

The second of those turned out to be faulty - having already been refused permission to enter the Channel Tunnel from France - in what passengers said was a decision-making farce.

On Saturday afternoon, a French railways operations official blamed a technical fault on board the Eurostar train, and not the line or the French network and its agents.

But the head of French rail operator SNCF's France-Europe travel unit, Mireille Faugere, admitted the incident was a "catastrophe for us," attributing it to "the misfortune of a series of technical breakdowns".

The passengers had left London on Friday evening and were due in Paris at around 11:30 pm the same night.

They arrived in the French capital shortly after 9:00 am local time on Saturday.

"It is an absolutely unacceptable situation," Faugere told reporters at Paris's Gare du Nord station. "The passengers experienced a real nightmare."

SNCF chief executive Guillaume Pepy has been ordered to report Monday morning with "lessons to be learned" to France's transport minister Dominique Bussereau.

According to SNCF statements and the testimony of passengers, the train set off without any difficulties, quickly making its way to the tunnel to France.

At the same time, a security alarm was triggered on another Eurostar travelling in the opposite direction, which meant it would not be allowed to enter the tunnel.

SNCF decided to switch passengers between the two trains at Lille - sending the London carriages back with the Paris departees, and bringing those who left St Pancras into Paris on the train refused entry to the tunnel.

The Paris-to-London travellers arrived at their destination without major delay.

But the London-to-Paris passengers complained of immediate problems, and the train broke down in open countryside near Ablaincourt in the Somme region at 0100 GMT, just 120 kilometres north of Paris.

The SNCF then sent another train from Paris to tow in the faulty one and its passengers, which didn't arrive until 0400 GMT.

But agents encountered problems coupling the two trains together, and the convoy could not move any faster than 60 kilometres per hour.

"As soon as we got into it, we sensed there were going to be problems," said Michele Mathieu. "The train was moving very slowly, the lights were flickering ... Then it suddenly broke down, and we were plunged into darkness, without any heating, in exposed countryside."

A French banker, a frequent traveller, said he would lodge a claim for compensation running to EUR 1,500 per passenger.

"SNCF agents knew they were putting us onto a defective train which had suffered damage given that a red warning light meant it was forbidden from entering the tunnel," said Philippe Guisset.

Agathe Bergeot, a French student staying in London, missed important exams which could have given her entry to prestigious Paris business schools.

Her father, Yves, said examiners had confirmed to him that no candidate could be accepted after the 8 am local time start. "We could be looking at a year of study tossed up into the air," he said.

One passenger was given medical assistance after passing out, while some people who spent the night at Gare du Nord waiting for passengers complained of an absence of information.

Passengers were to be reimbursed and given an additional free roundtrip ticket to London, with breakfast and free taxis provided upon arrival.

According to AFP records, the previously longest Eurostar delay was in April 2006 -before the high-speed upgrade on the English stretch of the line - when a train from Paris to London took nine hours to reach its destination.

[AFP / Expatica]

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