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July 31, 2018

Key station crippled: French train chaos for vacationers


July 31, 2018

Thousands of people hoping to hit beaches along France’s Atlantic coast faced massive train cancellations and delays on Monday as workers struggled to restore electricity to a key Paris station after a fire last week.

Only half of the roughly 230 scheduled trains in and out of the Gare Montparnasse station, a main departure point for holiday destinations, were expected to run on Monday, a spokesman for the state rail operator SNCF said.

Those still running were often packed to the brim, with hundreds standing in corridors for trips taking up to several hours longer than usual. Scores of trains were cancelled over the weekend, one of the busiest of the summer, stranding thousands of people in sweltering stations across western and southwestern France.

The disruptions began shortly before noon on Friday when traffic at Montparnasse was completely shut down by a fire at a high-voltage substation outside Paris. Some trains were up and running by Friday afternoon, but dozens were cancelled while others had to be re-routed throughout the weekend, often with hours of delays.

Electricity supplies won’t be back at full capacity until Tuesday afternoon "at the latest", grid operator RTE said -- after drawing the government’s ire over the weekend when it warned power might not be fully restored until Thursday.

Even so, the SNCF said services were not expected to return to normal until next Monday because a maintenance station for the high-speed TGV trains had also been crippled by the power cuts, leaving many locomotives out of service.

The cause of the blaze on Friday remains unknown, though RTE ruled out arson. Agents were distributing coffee and bottles of water on Monday at Montparnasse, France’s second-busiest station for high-speed train traffic.

While many passengers were taking the disruptions in stride, often thanks to text alerts and updates before they arrived at stations, patience was wearing thin for others.

"Our train from Montparnasse was cancelled. We were told to get one from the Gare d’Austerlitz but there it was cancelled again," said Nicolas, a pensioner travelling with his wife and their grandson.

"We’re supposed to take the 12:22 for Poitiers but it’s full. An agent said we could board anyway..." he said. Speaking to AFP about her dealings with exasperated clients, one agent told AFP: "We can obviously see that passengers are fed up. Waiting for hours like this is certainly not a picnic."

The SNCF is urging people to postpone trips if possible, while offering to reimburse travellers who opt instead for the company’s carpooling service Idvroom. Montparnasse has suffered a series of service cuts in recent years, in part the result of insufficient network investments in recent decades.

The latest power outage comes nearly a year to the day after an electrical problem at an SNCF signalling station paralysed traffic for three days just as thousands were hoping to start their holidays. Last December, the station was totally shut down for a day after a computer glitch during an IT update to signalling systems.

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