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Tunnel freight all but stopped

01 Apr 2002

ON MARCH 8, SNCF informed neighbouring railway administrations in Belgium, Italy and Spain that it would not accept any freight bound for Britain until a backlog of 17 trains in transit through France had been worked through the Channel Tunnel. While a few subsequently made it to the other side, the situation was essentially unchanged at mid-March. For practical purposes, rail freight movement between Britain and continental Europe has ceased. Certainly, no company sending goods by rail knows when they will arrive.

Coming at a time when the European Commission is striving to push through a package of reforms to make rail freight more competitive, especially across internal EU borders from which most controls have been removed, closure of the Tunnel is a serious embarrassment. The problem is caused by illegal immigrants trying to reach Britain who swarm every night into SNCF's Fréthun yard at Calais, overwhelming the 30 or so police and security guards trying to stop them boarding trains (RG 3.02 p122).

Matters came to a head on March 5 when the British operator EWS found five immigrants in a metal container bearing a security seal, which was supposed to show that it had been searched and cleared by SNCF. After one bore of the Tunnel had to be closed because people had been spotted riding on a wagon, Eurotunnel told SNCF that it would not clear signals for any train from Fréthun until it had received a fax certifying it clear of immigrants.

March 11 saw the French Transport, Interior and Defence ministers meet SNCF to discuss ways in which security at Fréthun could be stepped up, but afterwards the ban on train movements was confirmed because no agreement could be reached.

On March 14, the Rail Freight Group appealed to Britain's Strategic Rail Authority for £15m to compensate 22 of its member companies for losses suffered since SNCF first halted trains on November 7 2001.