Channel Tunnel remains closed

PARIS (Reuters) - A major fire aboard a freight train damaged the undersea Channel Tunnel on Thursday, halting all rail traffic, including passenger services, between Britain and continental Europe, the tunnel operator said.

Eurotunnel, the company which manages the tunnel, said there would be no freight or passenger travel on Friday and a spokesman said he could not say when services would resume.

The blaze turned one of the two main tunnel shafts into a smoking inferno. No one was killed, but six people fell ill after inhaling fumes and needed hospital treatment in Calais.

The French interior minister said emergency services had contained the fire some four hours after it was first detected and were starting to assess the situation.

“It is probable that there is considerable damage because the firemen told me that the blaze got as hot as 1,000 degrees (Celsius),” Interior Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie said.

She said it might take “several weeks” to make the necessary repairs to the tunnel normally dedicated to freight transport, but a separate, parallel tunnel reserved for passenger trains was not touched by the flames, but

Eurostar, which runs the passenger trains between London and the continent, was forced to shut down its service when the blaze took hold.

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Any prolonged disruption to services would be a major blow for Eurotunnel, which only posted its first profit last year.

Officials said they believed the fire started on one of the lorries loaded aboard the freight service, which then spread.

When the flames were detected, the French-bound train was brought to a halt some 11 km (7 miles) short of the French end of the tunnel, and the 32 people aboard the shuttle were evacuated through a service tunnel.

There was no passenger train in the tunnel at the time of the fire and all shuttles were turned back, leaving thousands of passengers stranded in Paris, London and Brussels.

Scores of lorries were also backed up on roads leading to the freight terminals in both Britain and France as drivers waited for a return to normal services.

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About 40,000 people a day use Eurostar to travel between Britain and the continent, according to Eurostar.

The Channel Tunnel is 51 km (32 miles) long, including a 38-km (24 mile) stretch that runs some 40 metres under the sea -- the longest such undersea subway in the world.

There have been two previous blazes in the Franco-British tunnel since it was inaugurated in 1994.

In November 1996, a truck caught fire causing one of the two main tunnels to be closed for a month and freight traffic to be halted for 7 months. In August 2006, there was another blaze on a truck, but there was no serious damage done.

Eurotunnel got buried by unsustainable debts when it built the historic link, which were compounded by lower-than-expected revenues as low-cost airlines provided ruthless competition.

It finally agreed a debt restructuring with its creditors last year, giving it fresh impetus.

The Eurostar train services are handled by France’s SNCF railway and Belgium’s SNCB on their respective territories while the British arm is owned by London & Continental Railways (LCR).

The British side is managed by a consortium including bus and train operator National Express, SNCF, SNCB and British Airways.

Reporting by Paris and London bureau; editing by Dominic Evans