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'Chunnel' PR Event Has Trouble Getting on Track

October 21, 1994|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — It was meant to be the showoff run of the new, high-speed Eurostar train under the English Channel from London to Paris that would relieve passengers of the strain of airports.

Instead, it was a public relations disaster Thursday when the sleek train failed to move from Waterloo Station and had to be replaced, causing a one-hour delay for about 400 passengers from the media.

Cases of celebratory champagne and countless boxes of food had to be transferred from the broken-down train to its twin replacement.

Television cameras were on hand to document the embarrassing delay as frustrated passengers lined up for coffee and rolls instead of rocketing through the countryside at speeds of up to 186 m.p.h.

The $38-million train was found to have an electrical fault in a circuit breaker in one of its power cars.

The highly publicized breakdown derailed Eurotunnel's faltering stock price--sending shares of the private British-French consortium that built and operates the tunnel to a new low in the wake of the many delays in the long-awaited Channel Tunnel train service.

The multibillion-dollar "Chunnel" project has opened late and faces severe financial difficulties, partly because of the loss of passenger revenues. It is not scheduled to carry its first paying passengers between London and the Continent until Nov. 14.

Although the train was late getting under way Thursday, it eventually made the journey to Paris' Gare du Nord in a record two hours and 50 minutes.

Eurostar trains will be competing for the lucrative London-Paris passenger route with airlines, which make the journey in about an hour. By car and fastest Channel ferry, the journey is a minimum of 4 1/2 hours.

However, Thursday's journey was designed to show the advantages of traveling directly from the heart of London to the center of Paris.

Last Friday, a Eurostar train on a test run from Paris to London broke down in England's Kent County and had to be towed away for repairs.

"We shall be reviewing the whole standby train situation," said a Eurostar spokesman, "and we shall be applying the lessons we have learned today."

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