Chunnel Operator Faces Financing Peril

THE sleek, silver-liveried Eurostar trains streaking under the stretch of water between Britain and France can finally see light at the end of the Channel Tunnel. But the company operating the high-speed passenger train service so far sees only red ink.

In a stark message to the company's 722,000 shareholders Monday, Sir Alastair Morton, co-chairman of Eurotunnel PLC, said the 8 billion debt built up during construction of the Chunnel could ''overwhelm'' the company. Servicing the debts of the Chunnel cost 2 million pounds a day in interest charges alone ($3.2 million).

''Eurotunnel is at risk,'' Sir Morton said. ''In 1995 we may succeed or we may fail.''

He announced losses of 387 million for 1994. But he said banks had agreed to advance another 300 million to cover cash needs until October.

To prevent the company from going bankrupt and being taken over by a consortium of 225 banks, Morton says, the Chunnel needs to have a highly profitable summer and beat back cut-throat competition from airlines and ferry companies.

But transport analyst Toby Moore describes Morton's hopes for a profitable summer season as ''a game of arithmetic roulette.''

He says he is convinced that start-up delays of the 10.5 billion project are at the root of Eurotunnel's problems. If the tunnelling project, which opened a year late, was completed on schedule, Mr. Moore says, the debt would be much smaller, and the company would be in a better position to fend off competition.

The project has also been plagued by technical delays and sluggish product marketing in its early operations.

If financial troubles aren't enough, a Channel-Tunnel passenger train got tangled in overhead power lines Wednesday, stranding its 250 passengers and hundreds of others waiting to cross the the Chunnel.

Eurotunnel earns its money by operating ''Le Shuttle'' trains that take freight trucks and passenger cars between the tunnel entrances in Folkestone, England and Calais, France, and fares from the Eurostar train service between London-Paris and London-Brussels.

Le Shuttle got bad press last month when it invited customers to arrive with their cars for a ''turn up and travel'' service, then failed to provide enough trains to accommodate them. Some aggrieved travelers took to slugging it out with each other in an overcrowded passenger terminal.

Morton says that after a slow start both Eurostar and Le Shuttle will be building up their services in coming months. But he does not disguise the seriousness of Eurotunnel's financial fix.

Half the company's debt has interest rates that fluctuate according to the ebb and flow of financial markets. Analysts calculate that a 1 percent rise in these rates adds 50 million to the interest bill.

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