x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Weather, not airline strike, disrupts British travellers

Snow, rather than striking stewardesses, caused chaos for people trying to get in and out of Britain as the holiday season began.

It was meant to have been industrial action that brought travel chaos to Britain this week. It has turned out to be the weather instead. All Eurostar services through the Channel Tunnel were cancelled yesterday after a 36-hour period when six trains broke down in the tunnel, trapping more than 2,000 passengers for as long as 16 hours. The railway company is now warning that it may not be able to guarantee a regular service until Christmas.

The knock-on effect was chaos on snow-covered roads in subzero temperatures on both sides of the Channel as police closed a major motorway through Kent, turning it into a giant lorry park, a situation aggravated by the closure of the port of Calais last Saturday because of the weather. Police in the UK issued an urgent notice to motorists yesterday, telling them to stay off the roads around Dover, the country's busiest ferry port. The conditions also caused flight delays in many parts of Europe, where more snow was forecast.

The irony was that British drivers on Eurostar trains had staged a 48-hour strike over the weekend, but nobody noticed. British Airways cabin staff had also planned a strike this week but were thwarted, at least temporarily, by the courts. "It seems the weather has succeeded far better in causing Christmas travel chaos than any industrial action ever could," a Kent police officer said yesterday. The problem for Eurostar was that its trains were travelling from subzero temperatures on the outside into heat of up to 25° in the tunnel. The resultant condensation caused electrical problems innumerable.

Starting on Friday night and continuing throughout Saturday, passengers had to be evacuated from the trains in mid-tunnel, with some being transferred to Eurotunnel freight trains which appeared unaffected by the weather problems. It was unclear when Eurostar services would resume. "We are committed to restoring our services as soon as possible, but our key priority is the safety and comfort of our customers," said a spokesman.

The mess led to calls for Richard Brown, the Eurostar chief executive, to resign. Nirj Deva, a member of the European Parliament representing the South East of England, said the company had not been adequately prepared for the situation and Mr Brown should "do the decent thing" and step down. Mr Brown himself said that he was "very, very sorry" for the inconvenience to the thousands of people who became stranded and to the thousands more whose Christmas travel plans have been thrown into doubt.

Although he admitted that it had taken "a very long time" to evacuate the immobilised trains, he described the weather conditions as unprecedented. "Clearly, if you're on a train stranded in a tunnel, it is a distressing experience," he said. "I'm not saying it went well, I'm saying it went rather better than actually a lot of people say." Eurostar yesterday ran empty trains through the tunnel in a bid to isolate and repair the cause of the electrical problems.

Somewhat to the company's embarrassment, Eurotunnel, which operates freight trains carrying lorries and cars, continued operating normally throughout the weekend although, because of the surge in demand and road conditions, motorists faced long delays. Ferry services also returned to normal yesterday but there were long delays both on the roads to the port and at the terminal itself. There was certainly no remission from the weather elsewhere, with Manchester Airport forced to close temporarily as staff cleared the main runway of fresh snow.