The Eurostar Breakdown: 'Tis the Season to Be Livid

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Leon Neal / AFP / Getty

A passenger looks at the empty platforms as further disruption affects the Eurostar service at St. Pancras station in London.

Singing "White Christmas" is fine if you're Bing Crosby or you're safely ensconced in front of a fire in a mountain hideaway somewhere. But hum a few bars of the song at the Eurostar terminals in Paris and London these days and you may get dirty looks. As difficult as it is to believe, snow is what apparently caused the breakdown of the Eurostar train network over the weekend that left service indefinitely suspended — and an ever-growing number of people stranded, their holiday plans in disarray.

The trouble began Friday evening when five locomotives abruptly stopped on the tracks in the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris, trapping more than 2,000 passengers with no food, water or news about what was going on for up to 16 hours. Those people eventually made it out of the tunnel —but nobody else has boarded a Eurostar train between the cities, or to Brussels, since then. Service is due to restart on Tuesday, provided officials can ensure that the trains won't break down in the tunnel again.

The apparent cause of the problem was the weather — specifically the fine, powdery snow that fell in northern France last week as a cold snap swept across the continent. Eurostar officials said Sunday that the tiny flakes appear to have penetrated the air filters on the locomotive's engine blocks and then melted when the trains entered the heated tunnel, causing the electrical systems to short out. "It was lighter than normal, fluffier, and the temperature inside the tunnel and the humidity was higher than normal," Nick Mercer, Eurostar's commercial director, told the media.

Since a similar problem in 2002 was resolved by "winterizing" the locomotives so that snow couldn't get into the engine blocks, Eurostar officials were guardedly optimistic that the same method would fix the problem this time. However, even if the trains do start running again, anger over the fiasco won't melt as quickly as the thinning French snow.

An estimated 55,000 passengers have been left high and dry in Paris and London since the trains stopped running Friday night, with still more marooned in Brussels. That's a lot of people to move during the holiday travel season when seats on trains, planes, buses and ferries are already difficult to come by. The problem will only get worse if service remains suspended this week, stranding even more of Eurostar's 24,000 daily users. The company says it will reimburse customers for their unused tickets and other "reasonable expenses" incurred, but it won't be able to transport all of the people who are waiting to cross the channel over the next few days. Little wonder, then, that for Eurostar passengers, 'tis the season to be livid.

Newspapers in Britain and France are filled with photos of infuriated customers being turned away at the Eurostar counters in London and Paris, some of whom were forced to spend at least one night camped out on the floor. In many cases, travelers have been angrier at the lack of information being provided by Eurostar than at the damage the situation has done to their holiday plans. And these are the lucky ones. Many of the more than 2,000 people who were trapped for hours in the dark Channel Tunnel on Friday night complained that virtually nothing had been done to care for them or inform them of developments during their ordeal — even as some individuals suffered attacks of asthma and claustrophobia.

Given the fury, the French government has launched an inquiry into both the technical glitches that caused the system breakdown and the response by Eurostar officials to the fiasco. For its part, Eurostar has also commissioned an independent panel to review "the problems it has experienced over recent days," according to a statement, although the company has thus far failed to heed calls by British Conservative politicians to fire CEO Richard Brown. Brown has apologized for the inconvenience the interrupted service has caused passengers, but says that sending more trains out to stall on the tracks beneath the channel simply isn't an option. Few clients were thanking him Monday for his caution.

The bad blood — and even worse publicity — is certainly the Christmas gift from hell for Eurostar. And the beneficiaries may be the beleaguered airline industry. Can the airlines take advantage of the anger to reclaim part of the England-France market share they've lost to the train service over the years? Five years ago, Eurostar accounted for just 45% of the travel between the countries; now, the figure stands at 75%.

Analysts are not so sure. "People are furious right now, but I'd be very surprised if this had any significant impact on Eurostar's position in the longer term," says Joe Gill, an aviation industry analyst for the Dublin brokerage firm Bloxham. He notes that airlines aren't exactly popular with travelers these days either. Indeed, only days ago, a planned strike by cabin crew at British Airways threatened to leave up to 1 million passengers stranded during the entire holiday season — until a judge blocked the industrial action. "Had this been a terrible crash or something, it might be different. But once tempers cool, people will use whatever service is most convenient — and for Paris-London, that's Eurostar," Gill says.

Passengers may also be hesitant to book plane tickets as they wait for the train service to resume — mainly because of the spiraling costs. After the cancellation of Monday's Eurostar trains, prices for a one-way ticket from Paris to London on British Airways shot up from $353 to $772. (Prices were up on other airlines, too.) For that much money, people may just try to enjoy their white Christmas wherever they're stuck — even if it's on a train station floor.