PARIS: Eurostar resumed its high-speed rail service linking Britain, France and Belgium on Tuesday after a three-day suspension that stranded tens of thousands of travelers during the holiday season and left French President Nicolas Sarkozy indignant.
The first train pulled out of the Gare du Nord station in Paris shortly after 8 a.m. carrying 750 passengers, most of whom had been stranded for days.
Passengers wait at the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras Station in London December 21, 2009. [Agencies]
Officials at the Eurostar train company said they had identified the problem that caused trains to break down in the Channel Tunnel -- unusually dry, powdery snow that got into the engines.
As many as 40,000 people have been affected by the suspension. Eurostar offered its "deepest apologies" and promised compensation.
President Sarkozy on Monday summoned the head of France's SNCF rail operator into the Elysee Palace 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 or water or any clear idea of what was going on.
Eurostar's CEO Richard Brown, who has faced stiff criticism over the company's handling of the crisis, pledged that "we will be doing our very best to get everyone home by Christmas."
Priority was being given to those stranded for days, as well as to the elderly and people with children, Eurostar's operations chief Nicolas Petrovic said.
Following tests, two out of three scheduled trains were set to run starting Tuesday, Petrovic said. He said the company would reimburse passengers for expenses incurred while they were stranded.
Petrovic said dry snow had got past the train's snow-screens and into the engines on Friday. Then the snow turned into condensation inside the Channel Tunnel, where temperatures were higher than those outside. That condensation caused the trains' electrical circuits to fail, he said.
"It's the first time we have these snow conditions in 15 years," he said, adding that normally snow in the region tends to be wet and heavy. Eurostar has commissioned an independent review into the problems.
While Eurostar works on getting the huge backlog of passengers home, it is blocking any new ticket sales until after Christmas.
Petrovic blamed Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, for the delay in rescuing passengers from the stuck trains, and did not exclude possibility of legal action.