Rail Service Benefits From Flight Cancellations

Many people were stranded by the disruption of air travel caused by the Icelandic volcano. Europeans at least had another option: The extensive modern rail network in most western European countries. In France, there was only limited impact from the lack of domestic flights because the high speed train service drove air links between most major cities out of business long ago.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. When Europe's planes stopped flying, trains took over. Many stranded Europeans were able to get home by train. Thousands of British travelers made their way to the main station in Paris for the Eurostar train to London. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: British tourists Jane and Clive Tomlinson are making their way up from the subway station into Paris's Gare du Nord train terminal. It's nearly the last leg of what has been a long journey home from their vacation in Rome.

JANE TOMLINSON: Oh, that's it.

BEARDSLEY: Despite the fact that their three-day odyssey included spending a short night on a train at the Italian-French border, the Tomlinson's say they'll definitely be back to the continent.

CLIVE TOMLINSON: Oh, yes. And we'll come by rail, which we've been so impressed by the railways, very comfortable and very pleasant. It's preferable to air travel. No waits at the airport and very good trains in France, very quick, from Avignon to Paris in three hours. Incredible.

BEARDSLEY: The inside of the Gare du Nord, Europe's largest train station, is a world in itself. Five hundred thousand passengers a day move through here on their way to and from destinations all over Western Europe. A massive board bears the names of scores of European cities and sleek high speed trains line up on the tracks.

Today, the Eurostar platform is jammed with hundreds of stranded tourists from the U.K. The Eurostar travels from Paris, under the English Channel, to the heart of London in just a little over two hours. The train has been a crucial link home for Brits ever since air travel came to a halt last Thursday. Lucy Walker, who has been trying to reach Manchester, says the Eurostar saved her.

LUCY WALKER: Basically, my flight was meant to be at 5:00 on Friday. Told it was canceled. They said book the next one. So I did. That one was canceled. So now I'm on the Eurostar. I hope to be going home finally. Hopefully I'll get there this evening, because I'm going all the way up to the north, so fingers crossed.

BEARDSLEY: While Europeans are big train takers anyway, they've especially flocked to them during the crisis. Nikola Cola(ph), spokesman for the French rail service, says the company has tried to meet the demand by adding high speed service between major French cities and internationally.

NIKOLA COLA: Since that first day we are proceed to additional trains on the different routes from Paris to London, Paris to Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam, and from Geneva, Switzerland.

BEARDSLEY: Since Sunday, 33 extra Eurostar trains have carried some 50,000 additional passengers to London. The French and German railways also worked together to add more connections. And there's even a special volcano ash fare.

But even with maximum rail service, not everyone has been able to get tickets. Londoners Susan and David Baker had to drive to the Gare du Nord from Madrid.

SUSAN BAKER: I had to hire a driver and it cost us 1,900 euros to drive from Madrid to Paris last night. We couldn't get a hotel, so we had to book into an expensive hotel, cost 350 euros for one night.

DAVID BAKER: So I think the whole trip has cost us 3,000 pounds to get home from Madrid (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

BEARDSLEY: As the station master blows his whistle for the next departure to London, the Bakers and other passengers board the Eurostar. They say they'll deal with the financial consequences of the volcano cloud later. For now, they're just happy they can actually get home.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

BEARDSLEY: For news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris)

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