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Cold spell strands thousands in stations, airports across Europe

A man riding in the trunk of a car to increase traction during a heavy snow storm on a regional highway near Skopje, Macedonia. Photo: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

A man riding in the trunk of a car to increase traction during a heavy snow storm on a regional highway near Skopje, Macedonia. Photo: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

Tens of thousands of European travellers were stranded yesterday in rail stations, traffic jams and airports as heavy snow and ice caused massive disruption at the start of the Christmas holiday season.

At least 19 people froze to death, mainly in Poland and mostly homeless people or drinkers caught out in temperatures that were glacial across Europe, plunging as low as minus 33˚ Celsius in parts of Germany.

Forecasters across the continent are expecting more snow and freezing rain over the next couple of days, but with temperatures rising slightly and the outlook gradually improving in the run-up to Christmas Day on Friday.

Roads and railways were closed or disrupted by snow, black ice or floods across northern and western Europe from Portugal to the Netherlands, and flights from British, Belgian, Dutch, French and German airports delayed.

The most embarrassing scenes for transport operators hit cross-Channel transport between Britain and France, after the Eurostar passenger service from London to Paris was shut down following at least five breakdowns.

Eurostar, the operator of the Channel Tunnel passenger trains, admitted it could not say when services would resume, with more than 24,000 passengers attempting inter-city travel ahead of the Christmas break stranded. The company said it would send test trains along the route to see if they can withstand the sub-zero temperatures in northern France, which are thought to have caused trains to break down in the tunnel late Friday.

"We did run two or three trains yesterday, they all got through the tunnel OK, but one or two of them showed symptoms of the problem that happened on Friday night," Eurostar director Richard Brown told the BBC.

French Euro MP Dominique Baudis said he would call for the European Commission to investigate after he and his family were among those stuck.

More than 2,000 passengers spent Friday night trapped in the undersea tunnel, some without anything to eat or drink. There were reports of heated disputes on board and some passengers bitterly criticised the company.

Approach roads to the ports of Dover and Calais were snarled by tail-backs because of heavy snow and queues of trucks waiting for delayed shuttle trains through the Channel Tunnel.

"Eurotunnel has advised us that waiting times are up to two hours at the terminal," Kent police Superintendent Matthew Nix said, warning car and truck drivers without reservations to stay away.

At Paris Charles de Gaulle airport 40 per cent of flights were cancelled and the remaining services were leaving an average of one hour late, while the city's second airport Orly was the scene of a strike by security staff. In the Belgian capital Brussels a flight was able to leave just after sunrise for Seville in Spain, but afterwards heavy snow forced authorities to halt all flights from airports in Brussels, Liege and Charleroi. Heavy snowfall also closed Germany's third largest airport in the western city of Duesseldorf, authorities said, and in the Netherlands a dozen flights from Amsterdam Schipol were cancelled.

International Thalys trains between Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam were also delayed and Sunday football matches were cancelled as far south as Italy and across much of the north.

The weather problems in Europe came as the eastern United States experienced an even more ferocious snowstorm, which blanketed several states, paralysed transport and cut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes.

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