The station serves Germany and eastern France and is a key local commuter hub

Paris (AFP) - A busy railway hub in Paris suffered a near-total traffic shutdown Tuesday after unidentified vandals triggered a crippling signal malfunction by setting cables on fire in a mysterious arson attack.

Traffic from Gare de l’Est, which serves routes to Germany and eastern France, and is a key local train commuter hub for the capital’s eastern outskirts, was cut for the entire day, except for a handful of local services, operator SNCF said.

The day-long shutdown of a main Paris station was highly unusual, with its usually buzzing platforms eerily quiet Tuesday afternoon.

Operations would remain deeply disrupted into the next day, with just one in three high speed TGV trains to leave Wednesday, SNCF said.

The fire broke out at a signals point before the morning rush hour. It was first thought to be an accident but subsequently turned out to be arson, it said.

“This was a fire started deliberately,” a spokeswoman for SNCF told AFP.

There was no immediate indication who the perpetrators were or what their intention was in targeting a small but crucial piece of infrastructure.

- ‘Scandalous vandalism’ -

Transport Minister Clement Beaune said 48 bundled cables had been destroyed, housing 600 individual electrical cables.

“Last night a scandalous act of vandalism was committed,” he told reporters at the station.

The operator filed a criminal complaint with police.

Beaune noted that the cables had been set alight at “two specific points” saying the act had been “clearly targeted” and “with the deliberate aim of causing damage and disrupting traffic”.

He said while vandalism was frequent this incident was “something quite exceptional”.

Prosecutors in the Meaux, a town east of Paris, said they had launched a criminal investigation against persons unknown for deliberately causing damage and endangering the lives of others.

The fire was discovered near the regional station of Vaires, east of Paris by a railway worker who called police at 4:30 am.

The cables’ function was to transmit data to signalling posts, meaning safety conditions could no longer be guaranteed, SNCF said.

Dozens of network specialists were on site to repair the damage, Beaune said.

He added that investigators had found traces of petrol “at two key points” at the site of the fire.

With the severe disruption lasting into Wednesday, SNCF said passengers should delay any planned journeys to and from the station.

- Petrol traces -

Among the high-speed TGV trains cancelled were the services to the eastern French cities of Colmar, Nancy and Reims; to Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany; and to Luxembourg.

Some TGV departures, however, were diverted to the nearby Gare de Nord station, SNCF said.

Passengers unable to travel were invited to re-book their journeys or have their tickets reimbursed.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it home today and I have to work tomorrow,” said Sylvie Rousseau, 58, who lives in Nancy. “It’s going to be a bit stressful.”

Gautier Milewski, a 27-year-old bookseller, said he could see the bright side of the situation.

“It’s important not to let this spoil your day. It’s an adventure and I like adventures,” he told AFP.

Gare de l’Est is the fifth-busiest of the French capital’s seven railway hubs, after Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon and Gare Montparnasse.

Nearly 28 million people used Gare de l’Est last year, according to SNCF data.

The disruption also comes at a time of general strain for French railway passengers with the system expected to be buffeted by a series of strikes as unions protest the government’s planned pension reforms.

Another national strike is planned on January 31 – after a widely followed first walkout on January 19.

The CGT and SUD unions said Tuesday rail workers would also strike on February 7 and 8.