Eurostar scrambled to get tens of thousands of passengers home for the holidays as it resumed service of high-speed trains under the English Channel on Tuesday, four days after a service shutdown caused by a hallmark of Christmastime travel: snow.
The first train pulled out of Paris' Gare du Nord station in the morning carrying 750 passengers, many of whom had been stranded since the rail link between Britain, France and Belgium was suspended Saturday.
Hundreds of others waited in a line that stretched across the cavernous Paris train station, as Eurostar staff circulated with trays of pastries and coffee in paper cups.
Eurostar has identified the problem that caused trains to break down in the Channel Tunnel, sparking the shutdown — unusually dry, powdery snow that got into the engines. The shutdown affected 40,000 people and left French President Nicolas Sarkozy indignant.
Eurostar offered its "deepest apologies," promised compensation and pledged to do its utmost to make sure passengers can celebrate the holidays with their families.
"We're worried about the passengers first and getting them where they need to be for the Christmas break," said Ian Nunn, Eurostar finance director. "We'll worry about reputational damage afterwards."
People who were supposed to travel over the weekend were given priority as trains started up. Service was less frequent than usual: About two out of three regularly scheduled Eurostars were running.
Snow the culprit
At the Paris station, Britain's Isabella Comba was worried.
"My mother's sick, said I really want need to get home to be by her bedside," said Comba, who works at Sotheby's auction house and was hoping to catch an afternoon train to Cornwall, in southwestern England. "It will really throw off my plans if I'm not able to get to London today."
Eurostar's operations chief, Nicolas Petrovic, gave a detailed technical explanation of what happened. Normally snow in the region tends to be wet and heavy, he said, but unusually dry snow got past the train's snow-screens and into the engines Friday. Then the snow turned into condensation inside the Channel Tunnel, where temperatures were higher than those outside.
The condensation caused the trains' electrical circuits to fail, he said.
"It's the first time we have (had) these snow conditions in 15 years," he said. Eurostar has commissioned an independent review into the problems.
Nonetheless, Transport Minister Dominique de Bussereau expressed incredulity that mere snowfall had caught Eurostar off-guard. So did ordinary travelers.
"It's not like it never snowed before," said Jennifer Eboule, a 21-year-old French student waiting in line at Gare du Nord. "It's hard to understand how something like that could cause such a big problem."
Sarkozy calls situation ‘unacceptable’
Sarkozy summoned the head of France's SNCF rail operator into the Elysee Palace on Monday for a one-on-one meeting and ordered him to get the Eurostar moving again, saying the situation was "unacceptable for travelers."
Problems started Friday after five trains failed inside the Channel Tunnel, trapping more than 2,000 passengers for hours in stuffy and claustrophobic conditions. Exhausted, sometimes teary-eyed passengers appeared in British and French TV broadcasts complaining that they had been left underground for more than 15 hours, without food, water or any clear idea of what was going on.
Eurostar's operations chief blamed Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, for the delay in rescuing passengers from the stuck trains, and did not exclude the possibility of legal action.
While Eurostar works on getting the huge backlog of passengers home, it is blocking any new ticket sales until after Christmas.
Wintry weather has affected European air travelers, too.
Flights in and out of Frankfurt International Airport resumed Tuesday after snow and ice left 8,000 passengers stranded inside terminals or in nearby hotels.
Europe's biggest airport, Britain's Heathrow, was open Tuesday, but several flights were delayed because of the bad weather. Gatwick, which had closed its only runway for five hours Monday, said the airport was open but several flights were canceled or diverted.
British Airways had canceled all domestic and European flights Monday evening, but said most flights were operating normally Tuesday.
In Italy, heavy snowstorms and freezing temperatures left thousands of train passengers stranded at railway stations or on carriages, often without heating, according to Italian news reports. Hundreds of flights have been canceled as well.