Hundreds of migrants poured overnight onto the high-speed railway linking Paris with London near the French port of Calais, a police source said on Wednesday, stranding thousands of passengers aboard Eurostar trains for hours.
The migrants took to the tracks around Calais-Frethun station, the latest target for those trying to reach Britain, forcing French rail operator SNCF to halt services near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
About 3,000 to 4,000 migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa live in camps around Calais, dodging police as they try to get aboard trains and trucks heading for Britain through the tunnel or on car ferries.
Five Eurostar high-speed trains were blocked for hours and passengers in one were asked to listen out for any sounds of migrants climbing onto the carriage roofs. Many sat in dark, stifling trains after SNCF had to shut down the power supply.
A spokeswoman for Eurotunnel said that as security is tightened at Calais port and the Channel Tunnel entrance, the migrants are looking for new entry points such as Calais-Frethun. The station lies about 5 km (three miles) inland, just outside the zone controlled by Eurotunnel.
The tunnel operator also said it would share know-how with SNCF, which is to erect 13 km (8 miles) of security fencing along the rail network.
At the start of the year, the migrants who are fleeing conflict and poverty in their home countries mainly targeted trucks bound for ferries or the tunnel. As fences there were erected, they targeted the tunnel entrance itself before turning their sights to the railway station beyond.
Earlier this week, migrants were still trying to get into trucks and even the cars of tourists queueing up to enter the ferry port.
The transport disruption at Calais coincided with protests at Budapest rail station in Hungary where hundreds of migrants wanting to board trains for Germany were shut out on Tuesday by officials.
Eurostar said on its Twitter feed that three of the blocked trains later continued on their route to London early on Wednesday, while two others returned to their departure stations in London and Paris.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France would start legal proceedings against all those who are arrested during intrusion attempts. "Our target is to reduce the number of intrusions to zero," Cazeneuve said on radio Europe 1.
Cazeneuve said nine people have died this year trying to make the crossing.
Passengers on one of the London-bound trains, which stopped less than a mile (1.6 km) from the tunnel, were told at one point to keep very quiet and listen for the sound of people climbing on the roof.
A helicopter with a searchlight then circled the train as guards walked the tracks looking for migrants, but seemingly none was spotted. Migrants usually scatter when the police arrive, only to return later to try again.
With the power out, passengers on that train sat in the dark for nearly four hours. The heat and mugginess rose as staff walked the aisles with wind-up torches. A woman in business class wept and many passengers said they could not breathe in the stifling air.
Eurostar then pulled the train back to Calais, where passengers disembarked for fresh air and bottled water. The company has offered to exchange tickets.
(By John Pullman and Pierre Savary; Additional reporting by Pierre Savary in Lille and Geert De Clercq in Paris; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Peter Cooney, Eric Beech and David Stamp) Photo credit: Matt/Flickr