Eurostar has let the railways down


A love affair with trains is like marriage to a serial philanderer. Just when things are going well, they let you down – again.

 Eurostar is usually a fantastic service. London to Paris or Brussels in around two hours, a window with a view and that superior feeling of overtaking cars that seem to be going backwards as you whizz past at twice their speed. Then railways go and remind you why Dr Beeching had such an easy time of it.

 Since the high-speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel opened two years ago people have been abandoning planes for trains. That was good for the planet and even spurred politicians of all parties to contemplate a high-speed network around Britain. Now many of these people will be back in the air. After all, you don’t get five planes falling out of the sky in quick succession.

 You can just about forgive Eurostar for having one or two trains fail. Or possibly all five, if staff had coped with the resulting problems. But they didn’t. Sure, it was not easy given that each train had about 700 people on board and there were not enough rescue locomotives. And the tunnel is 50km long.

 But they could, at least, ensure that the passengers were able to breathe. A basic right, one would have thought, but apparently health and safety precludes the doors being opened in the tunnel even though there is a walkway throughout which gives easy access to the safety tunnel.

 And where was the Dunkirk spirit? Could the sandwich shops of Folkestone and Calais not have been co-opted to feed the hungry hordes sitting in the dark and sweltering heat? Apparently not. Eurostar told me, shockingly, that it cannot speak to its staff on board trains once they enter the tunnel because “there’s no mobile connection and so we have to go through Eurotunnel”, which is a completely separate company.

 That’s the nub of the problem. Nobody took overall responsibility. The tone adopted by Richard Brown, the head of Eurostar, said it all. He was vaguely apologetic, but he did not get the enormity of the cock-up. Like a football manager whose team had just lost 7-0 he still thought they had played well.

 Despite all this, next time I’m heading for Paris or Brussels, or even places farther afield, I’ll trudge down to St Pancras International, because like many cuckolds, I’ll always come back for more, however badly I’m treated. Trains are, after all, the best form of transport, even if they are sometimes the worst.

  • Matt Tempest

    What annoys me is Eurostar don’t appear to have learnt anything. We got stuck in a heatwave summer 2006, and spent 7hours stranded in a eurostar in northern France, heading back for London. Yet again, a scary and claustrophobic situation was made infinitely worse by the TOTAL lack of communication with passengers by staff and driver.

  • Ian Raymond

    Quite apart from the experiences by those stranded on trains, Eurostar simply does not appear to have any ‘disaster management’ plan in place for an occasion where – for whatever reason – they cannot use the tunnel, the only strategy they appear to have is to shrug their shoulders and say “you can’t travel’. Great.
    Their objective should be to still get people from A to B – that is what the transport industry does. This would mean running Eurostar Paris to Calais (for example, there are other routes), having an emergency arrangement with the ferry companies to convey the passengers, the rail service then resuming at Dover. Would the ferry companies turn down any chance at extra trade? No way, most of them have got pretty good commercial accumen these days. Could bus shuttles be arranged between stations and ports? Most local bus companies can arrange something within 2 hours, yes even at Calais – I’ve checked. Is Eurostar too blinkered, unwilling to see beyond their own company? Probably yes. A cynic might say maybe they’re afraid some people will discover that the ferry is actually a quite civilised way of crossing these days, IMHO.
    Can’t be done, I hear? Here on Merseyside, whenever the Mersey Rail Tunnel sits down within 20 minutes staff are directing and assisting passengers to the Mersey Ferries; within an hour replacement bus services are up and running via the road tunnels, even in a busy rush hour. But then of course up here things are run by (so we are told) the ineffiecient public sector, rather than the wonderful vanguard of private enterprise such as Eurostar…

  • Andrew Monk

    It’s perfectly tolerable that disruption happens. Completely understandable, you get delays on the motorway, at the airports and on the rail network every day.
    How the message is communicated and the situation managed is all important.

    The point about utilising other services to do domestic shuttling is interesting:
    Could Southeastern services have been used sooner to get people down to Dover Priory?
    Well probably yes, but were the ferries running? For a while NO. Roads around Calais were so bad that the services were stopped, so you hold people.
    When the ferries were running, people were passed on HS1 services to Dover, but passengers were seemingly abandoned to make their own transfers to Dover Port.

    We know that buses run normally between Dover Priory and Dover Port, these could have been strengthened or made more frequent as a rail replacement service.

    The same applies on the other side of the channel at Calais.

    There are other issues no doubt about communication on board during the sit down in the tunnel, and the use of social media by Eurostar to it’s best advantage. Richard Brown has written an interesting blog entry on the latter.

    Overall, this is an unfortunate combination of events, simply because many of the alternatives that would normally be used to move people weren’t available as well.

    What is clear is that cross industry contingencies need to be tightened up, but also that the tolerances of the public needs to be able to cope with a dynamic situation where the message has the possibility of changing as more is learned and plans swing into action.

  • Steve Bacon

    I agree that Eurostar could have done far more to get its passengers to their destinations by whatever means were available. For a few days now, it was known that Paris-bound trains weren’t affected, but that London-bound trains broke down. Why couldn’t an emergency service have operated from St. Pancras to Calais, and a shuttle from Calais to Paris or Brussels?

    I’m pleased to see that British Airways redeemed itself by putting a 747 on the London-Paris route on Monday.

  • Ian Raymond

    I’m afraid that it’s a golden rule when running a transport business; run it without any disruption 99.99% of the time and the customers won’t notice or thank you for it; they’ll judge you instead by how well you handle the .01% of the times when things go pear-shaped. Wonder what price in aviation growth / Eurostar business this incident will cause? This is why there HAS to be a contingency plan ready.

    (For the detail-pickers I use ‘customers’ above not ‘passengers’ as this statement applies just as much to freight!)

  • Sandi Dunn

    Can Christian please investigate and report back via this site as I will not travel via the tunnel again until I know the answers as laid out below:
    1 just why people were kept locked in the trains for hours – given that there is an emergency tunnel for people…. couldn’t they have walked out or been put on the car shuttle sooner?
    3 or ”just’ someone with a heart attack, asthma attack, panic attack, burst appendix or pregnant mum having gone into labour etc etc?
    4 As a frequent traveler between London and Paris I want to know the answers to these points please. Also, I want to know if the staff on these trains are trained in first aid and if there are emergency supplies on board i.e. defibrillator, asthma drugs and so on?
    5 What were Kent police doing (It was reported they were making interminable checks – why)?
    6. Please explain to us how there could be five trains broken down in the tunnel – it makes no sense… to have let them travel into the tunnel AFTER THE FIRST ONE HAD BROKEN DOWN….
    7 Are there any form of TELEcommunications to the outside world in that tunnel ?
    8 What was the outcome of the 2008 tunnel fire inquiry? (I was due to travel that day but took the local Paris to Calais route then on the Ferry and by train from Dover to London on that occasion).
    9 This time we took the bus from Paris last Sunday 20th Dec 09. It makes me really cross that the alternative ways of travel were not covered on Beeb etc.
    10 WHY DID NO TRANSPORT JOURNALIST COVER WHAT WAS GOING ON AT EUROLINES bus station at Bagnolet Paris also Victoria london? (or did I miss it). The staff there told me that they worked UNtill 3 am in morning Saturday/Sunday to clear stranded Eurostar passengers!