Eurostar arrivals bring delayed Christmas cheer

Cross-Channel families reunited at St Pancras, some later than planned, as Eurostar begins to clear backlog

For Loetitia Delais, Christmas began at exactly 11.40am today as her mother, Jocelyne, finally struggled through the Eurostar arrival doors at St Pancras station, laden down with bags, just over two days late, but nonetheless beaming with joy.

"I'm so happy she's here," said Delais, 43, who has lived in London for 20 years, as the pair enveloped each other in hugs. "She was booked to travel on Sunday and it looked like it was going to be my children's first Christmas without their grandmother. But she was determined to get on a train. She promised me she'd get here today whatever happened, bless her."

After three days of stationary trains and increasingly disgruntled customers, Eurostar services resumed this morning and the cross-Channel rail operator began the task of clearing a backlog of tens of thousands of passengers, with the added pressure of trying to deliver them to their destinations, if at all possible, before Christmas.

"We're terribly sorry for the discomfort we've put them through over the last few days and it's great to see that we're being able to make some inroads into the backlog and get people home," said the company's finance director, Ian Nunn.

The technical – and public relations – nightmare began on Friday when five trains broke down in the Channel tunnel as melting snow played havoc with electronic systems, trapping thousands of passengers for hours.

With the problem identified and resolved, Eurostar warned that the only people who could travel initially would be those with tickets booked for last Saturday and Sunday. In the end, more passengers than expected either stayed at home or found alternative routes, and some scheduled to travel yesterday or even today were let on board.

"All in all, things are getting better today," a Eurostar spokeswoman said. "Our system for prioritising ticketholders seems to be working well, and we are managing the backlog of passengers."

One of the lucky ones was Dan Holloway, a 24-year-old computer games designer living in Versailles, who turned up at Paris's Gare du Nord at 6.30am armed with a ticket for this morning, an ambition to get home for a family Christmas and a keen sense of enterprise.

"If all else failed I was planning to lie and tell Eurostar I was getting married on Boxing Day and so had to travel," he confessed. "Luckily it didn't come to that. There were two queues, one for people booked for Saturday and Sunday and another for yesterday and today, and they got almost everyone on. It was very efficient in the end. They even gave out orange juice and coffee."

His mother, Angie Newnham, was waiting to drive him back to Hereford. "After all the delays I can't believe he got back so easily in the end. Father Christmas clearly came early for Dan," she said.

It was a very different story 100 yards or so away on the station concourse as several dozen harassed-looking Eurostar staff in fluorescent plastic vests grappled with the woes of passengers still trying to travel in the other direction. Here, many were still complaining about a lack of information, a repeated gripe during the stoppage.

"We had tickets booked for today but I was told that there was no chance of travelling today. We were told we might get on a train later this week but we were not told when, and the Eurostar staff seemed to be pushing for us to get a refund," said Jon Parnhan, 30.

One woman, who gave her name as Branca, said she had travelled to the station from west London simply to be able to ask a Eurostar staff member how she could get a refund on tickets bought for her children to visit their aunt in Paris, a plan now abandoned. "All I could get on the phone was a recorded message and the Eurostar website was useless, so this was the only way to find out," she said.

Back in the arrivals section, the reunited Delais family were preparing to set off to Loetitia's family home in south-west London. "I can't believe my mother made it," she said. "She says she only got to the station 15 minutes before getting on to the train. It would have been terrible if she hadn't been able to come, not only for the children but me as well. I'd feel like a little girl without her at Christmas."


Peter Walker and Shibani Mahtani

The GuardianTramp

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