For three days, 90,000 passengers have been stranded by European transportation -- many of them in an almost unimaginable nightmare. Eurostar, the train service that runs beneath the English Channel between London, Paris and Brussels, has been shut down due to brutal winter weather.The headache comes just as the U.S., contending with a weekend of flights snarled by snowstorms, has placed an official three-hour limit on airport tarmac delays. On both sides of the Atlantic, it's increasingly clear that the only real protection against cold weather and other disasters comes from a more robust transportation infrastructure.
%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The debacle in the Chunnel -- the 30-mile train tunnel under the English Channel -- began on Friday, when exiting trains short-circuited and stalled out on their way up to the surface, blocking the tunnel's exit and causing a backup that left some passengers stranded inside the tunnel without food or water for 12 hours.
Disaster and Opportunity
Engineers are blaming the weather and experimenting with modifications to make the trains more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity. But the Chunnel rail service isn't back up and running yet. However, all those stranded passengers translate into a fantastic business opportunity for rival transportation services.
As Eurostar's trains sit in Paris and London, no-frills Irish airline Ryanair will run "rescue service" flights between London and Paris starting Wednesday. For only €99 ($141) or £99 ($159), stranded passengers can catch a one-way flight between the cities. This is a pretty pricey ticket by the standards of Ryanair, which often charges £17 ($27) for this flight -- it's been known to offer fares as low as £5 ($8). But stranded beggars can't be choosers. Especially during the holiday season.
Those who hate flying can always go old-school. On Monday, the BBC interviewed two stranded travelers who plan to get back to London from Paris by taking traditional, pre-Chunnel routes. One traveler will take a seven-hour bus ride from Paris to London via Channel ferry -- roughly triple the travel time of the Eurostar train. Another planned to take the train from Paris to Calais, France; the ferry to Dover, England; and then the train to London -- an eight-hour, £90 ($145) trip that will keep him from missing more than two days of work.
These options are far from attractive, but at least they demonstrate the existence of a robust public transportation grid in Europe. The same can't be said for the U.S., where last weekend's monster snowstorm resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations and delays of several days. Unlike in Europe, travelers stranded here found few real alternatives for anything but the shortest trips. Due to its own weather-related problems, Amtrak trains up and down the Eastern Seaboard were packed, leaving airline passengers with little choice but to wait until the delays work themselves out.
Many Foul-Ups, Few Options
On Monday, the Transportation Department ordered airlines to limit tarmac waits to three hours. This policy will help redress the sort of problems that led to last year's battles over the Passenger Bill of Rights, but it won't change the basic facts of American transportation.
Bus riders can use a patchwork of large and small lines, and train riders can get to some cities on a series of overextended, poorly funded rail lines. But the vast majority of the country's transportation investment has been in airline and automobile infrastructure, to the neglect of other viable options. Any form of transportation is vulnerable to weather extremes, but having several options would make delays a lot less disastrous.
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