Railway can no longer respond to crisis

After the Xmas Eurostar debacle, the company repeatedly said that it would improve its website in future to communicate better with its passengers and respond better to crisis. Fat chance. On the website today, there is a mere two paragraph warning telling people not to come to the stations without a ticket but there is no mention of any extra trains or anything that is being done to accommodate displaced air passengers.

There is no attempt to  inform travellers of what to do and no news about any extra trains. Given the spare capacity on the line, the extra train sets mouldering in sidings, it should not be beyond the whit of the management to rustle up a few extra trains and take advantage of the airlines misfortune.

But no. This shows the extent to which the company is unable to respond to changing circumstances. As I said after the xmas debacle, there is a desperate need for fresh management and new thinking. Eurostar has all the failings of old railway thinking, and behaves like the monopoly that it is.

The domestic operators are not doing much better. East Coast put on an extra service today, and Virgin a couple, but events such as this demonstrate the inflexibility of the railways, and the fact that they are not a form of transport that can be relied upon at times of crisis.  This suggests they are a nice addition to our transport infrastructure, but not really a fundamental part of it, which begs the question of whether the subsidy they receive is justified.

Stop press: Network Rail has just announced that it will cancel any engineering work that gets in the way of long distance train travel.  Sensible, but why does it not do that more often when, for example, there are big sports occasions.

  • Matt Tempest

    Didn’t there used to be a BR Special Trains Unit, specifically to deal with one-off events like this?

  • Michael Weinberg

    Absolutely correct, Christian!
    I’ve been looking at the websites hoping for some sign that the TOC’s would show some initiative in taking advantage of the situation, as |I’m sure the airlines would if the situation was reversed.
    But if anything, the emphasis is on how difficult it is to take all the extra passengers.
    To be fair, our railways have just the amount of stock to operate the daily service and no more.
    They cant cope with anything over and above that.
    One longs for the inefficient French railway which seemingly has an endless supply of TGV’s doing nothing!
    There’s no excuse for Eurostar however: their website and their response to any crisis is abysmal and they DO have spare capacity, if they’d only pull their finger out and use it.

  • Richard T

    I was stuck at Lille International as a result of the crash in Brussels in February. Eurostar had had plenty of time to organise extra trains shuttling from Lille to London – they might even have stopped the Paris trains passing through as well – but there was nothing done except to allow queues to build up and for folk to wait in patience. There was not a senior manager to be seen nor was there any consistent explanation given as to what was happening. They are, as you say, quite useless.

  • Ian Raymond

    Spot on Michael:

    “To be fair, our railways have just the amount of stock to operate the daily service and no more. They cant cope with anything over and above that.”

    It’s not just about dealing with any transport crisis, as we’ve all seen it’s not even got enough stock to deal with major sporting events… big concerts… summer saturday holiday traffic.,. etc. I suppose we’ve got successive DfT bean counters and restrictive franchise terms to thank for that, but it’s about time we started asking not the Wolmar Question (What is franchising for) but “What are the railways for?”


    BTW full marks to my ‘local’ ferry company Norfolkline at Birkenhead, who are cheerfully deploying extra staff to deal with all the queries and ensure they can carry as many passengers as their capacity allows on the Belfast/Dublin routes. For the ferry companies this is one cloud that certainly has a silver lining…

  • RapidAssistant

    I was disappointed that TOCs – but Virgin in particular – didn’t respond to this in the same way as they did for previous airline chaos (such as the T5 debacle for instance) in that they gave away free tickets to stranded Manchester and Glasgow-bound air travellers that were stranded in London.

    All there was on their website yesterday was a rather perfunctory “expect our Anglo-Scottish services to be extremely busy today” – or words to that effect. A wasted opportunity.

  • LiberalSeagull

    I’m just off a London to Glasgow service. Slightly busier than usual, but seats for everyone and arrived in perfect time. Seems fine to me.

  • Greg. Tingey

    Spot on!

    Why have Eurostar not got every available set in service, with extra trains?
    Why are not the government and DafT not sitting HARD on the heads of Eurotunnel, amking sure that DB-ICE units can run to, at least Ashford or Ebbsfleet?
    They could probably be run through to St. Pancras if they had a pilotman and a mobile ‘phone, until the appropriate signalling-boxes are plugged in.
    But, no. The 500-foot giant “management” jelly smothers all, and the operators and engineers are left out in the cold, along with thousands of strnded passengers.

    One good thing though – this probably means the end of the “Third runway” fiasco at Heathrow?

  • Derek L

    The national railway, here Virgin WCML and East Coast only have so many trains, which I guess limits their ability to add extra trains to cope with crisis.

    It occurs to me, though, that never mind the availability of train sets, do they have the crew? Just to run normal service, they still rely heavily on rest day working, and how many extra are available (or want to work even more rest days).

    Worth bearing in mind that domestic air does not carry that many passengers. The aircraft are A319s or 737s, carrying around 100 each on full load. An ECML 91+stock carries around 500, and similar for a Pendolino. That is effectively one or two trains for all the domestic cancellations to Glasgow, for instance, and there is some space on the timetabled services, in any event.

  • Ian Griffiths

    The mind boggles at Eurostar’s complete insensibility to
    – the scale of the human and economic problems in the present crisis
    – the incredible opportunity to introduce new people to the advantages of international rail – travel and make them into regular customers
    – the chance to create an image of efficiency, reactivity and quality
    – the opportunity to make a bit more money

    My understanding is that Eurostar managed to add eight trains yesterday. This is a ridiculously low figure compared to the number of people who need to be transported.

    As far as I can see, only the ferry companies have learned a lesson form the December fiasco and are not only embarking passengers in large numbers but also publicising the fact!

    It seems obvious by now that some external organisation should take over when a crisis occurs (wrong type of snow, leaves, volcanic ash, olympic games, etc.) with powers capable of kick-starting changes very quickly.

    In this case, it has been pointed out very rightly that Eurostar sets are available and organising extra trains should not present a problem. Even if there were a problem with staffing or getting slots on the line between Lille and Paris, many alternatives exist:
    – A Shuttle could be organised between Ashford International and Calais Fréthun or Lille with Southwest trains ferrying passengers from St Pancras and back and busses, TGVs, regular trains and night trais carrying passengers on to Paris or Brussels (and Lyon, Geneva, Marseilles…).
    – Eurostars could run throughout the night if the infrastructure companies were kind enough to keep the lines open (which they could be surely be persuaded to do)

  • Ian Griffiths

    The bad quality of information on Eurostar’s and many other Web sites is frightening, for the last two days it has said:

    We are doing everything we can by adding extra trains to help passengers who are experiencing problems as a result of the disruption to air travel in Europe but inevitably our trains are extremely busy over the weekend.

    Just that… no information on how many trains, what times, etc. However the front page is full of fascinating information that must warm the hearts of stranded passengers:
    – Discover the £69 return
    – Looking forward to summer?
    – May Bank Holidays
    – Up to 40% off Disney® hotels

    Oh! yes and this most useful article:
    – Cost Comparison – See how Eurostar compares with the airlines.

    As if any one could care less!

    Compare that to P+O Ferries website where the front page has been entirely devoted to informing people of what to do in the present situation.

    Why this tetanised attitude to giving out information on the web? I can offer an educated guess: Eurostar’s website is known in technical terms as a Content Management System (CMS). These are relatively inexpensive programs that allow users to whip up a site in a very short period of time. Obviously they can be linked to other programs such as online booking, etc.

    As they are relatively cheap and easy to use, many publicity and Internet agencies use them to create sites for customers who can then learn how to modify and update them.. or leave it to the agency. In the first case, changes can be made very quickly but requires someone to receive some training (and think up the texts to insert). In the second, the agency must be called and given precise instructions, which takes time.

    My impression is that only the little pane at the top right hand of the main screen can be modified directly by Eurostar. The rest being the preserve of the agency. This makes for a nice static and staid site that is not going to be moved by small details like Icelandic ashes!

    Eurostar needs to look at other transport web sites. I would suggest P+O Ferries, Easyjet and Swiss railways. They need to have people in-house who can edit their website quickly to adapt to changing circumstances. People with sensitivity ideas and initiative.

  • Eurostar have been pushing news of a few extra services via Twitter and Facebook – better than the mess in December at least.

    As for extra services: isn’t that one thing that is inevitably lost with privatisation? No company has any incentive whatsoever to maintain old rail stock. It’s cheaper to compensate when things go wrong, rather than putting on extra services. DB* or SNCF have masses of old locos and coaches they can put into service if they need to, UK railways generally do not…

    (* – am writing this from Berlin and there was scant little sign of this at Berlin Ostbahnhof this morning)

  • Greg. Tingey

    Second, better (?) thoughts.

    Just get quick approval for ICE units to get to ASHFORD.
    Transfer passengers to “Javelins” there …..

    Incidentally a friend was stuck in Berlin, and is somewhere between Köln and Lille as I type this.
    DB arranged it, and she’ll demand money-back from the airline, once she’s home.
    So it CAN be done!

  • Percy

    In terms of internal UK travel.

    WCML 1980’s Manchester – London 1 train an hour. 2010, 3 trains an hour. 1980’s Manchester – Brum 1 train an hour and at some times of day there was a two hour gap! until about 1986 when Man – Brum timetable boldly went hourly. 2010, 2 trains an hour.

    In 2010 the extra trains are already out there, they are running everyday, the timetable has more than doubled. There isnt really the line capacity to run ay great number of extras, its just a pity that what is running cant be strengthened in the time honoured fashion that loco hauled trains could be.

    Back in the 70’s and 80’s BR was able to run at short notice Airport Specials for diverted flights. If Heathrow flights ended up at Manchester coaches brought the diverted passengers to Man Picc where a train awaited and took everyone to Euston. Logistically that sort of thing is beyond the resources of todays railway for lots of reasons both managerially, resource wise and capacity wise. The railway just cant handle anything thats out of the ordinary day to day pattern anymore. Consequently if flights were diverted on a large scale the coaches would now go from Manchester Airport not to Mancheter Piccadilly but instead straight down the M6 & M1 to London. Ironically there is now a railway station at Manchester Airport.

  • Ian Griffiths


    The main problem at the moment is that there are nearly 200,000 people overseas trying to get back to the UK and, presumably approximately the same amount of people stranded in the UK, mainly around London, trying to leave.

    Within the country, there are plenty of alternatives for travelling and the pressure is not on the same scale.

    Between the UK and the Continent, there is plenty of free capacity:
    – HS1 could take many more trains and so could the tunnel (maybe running more slowly) and the TGV line as far as Lille and Brussels could also take the load.

    The problem is a generalised lack of preparedness:
    – No contingency plans exist to take over the passengers of some means of transport that cannot run to capacity. This can be ships due to bad weather or strikes, trains due to lack of snow filters, or aircraft due to bad weather or volcanic ash.
    – There is no organised means of communication with the public: there are thousands of people out there whose only worry is “How do I get from London to X?”. They do not want to surf the tens of woefully inadequate Internet sites belonging to individual companies. They want to be given a choice of solutions.
    – Are there any hotels left and if so, what do they cost?
    – Where can they catch a boat (Portsmouth, Hull, Aberdeen…) and what do they do afterwards (bus, train…)

    Every time there is some sort of crisis, the same problem occurs: the public does not know where to turn for impartial advice. And many end up stranded in a country that they don’t know well and whose language they do not speak.

    It would not be a great problem for the transport companies and/or the Government to set up such an organisation with the task offering centralised information by the Internet and, possibly, by phone. Such an organisation could provide standard information when things are going well and have contingency plans in place (set up with the transport organisations) for emergencies. It is much easier to prepare for a crisis before it happens than during it.

  • Dan

    Well, let people use their own initiative for a change – can’t do them any harm. Learn to read a timetable for example!

  • Adam

    This article and some of the responses is typical of the unfair critisicm that the transport network, in particular the railway network, is receiving at the moment.

    Whilst the railways are far from perfect, I am finding it very hard to find News articles which actually praise the TOCs, Network Rail etc… for running the extra trains they have done and postponing the night/weekend engineering work to allow the trains to run as normal. Many people have used the different various methods of travel over the last week and many people would have found it difficult to get around without it. People still have to understand that this situation is unprecedented and something that has never happened before, do people expect the TOCs to have hot spare trains lying in a siding somewhere just incase a volcano blows it’s ash all over Europe?

    We should be praising the effort rather that critisicing it

  • RapidAssistant

    Well Adam – perhaps the real point is that the railway industry should start fighting its corner a bit better instead of allowing it to be dissed by the media who are seemingly programmed to sniff out anything negative about the railways.

    Something that can’t happen under a fragmented structure with one company saying chalk and the other one saying cheese.

  • percy

    Ok everybody.

    I’m on my way to Limoges from Cumbria.

    Ryan Air Flight canceled.

    Plenty of room on the Virgin Train to Euston despite flights from Scotland being grounded. Seen it busier when the competition is up in the air flying.

    The 2012 High Speed train to Dover was a virtual Ghost Train, really relaxed and empty, what a nice train, can we swap the Pendolinos for these units, forget about tilting, I’d rather have a bit more room for the head and legs and a bigger window to look out of. I can suffer a few more minutes on the journey.

    No problem getting a B&B in Dover, the one I am writing from still has vacancies, I fact I havent seen another guest, its a lovely place, clean and empty and only 35 quid, So no ripping off going on either.

    Tomorrow down at the docks may be another story but notices at station appear to indicate otherwise, a bit of queuing may be order of day but they seem to be getting people across.

    All in all. So far so good. It could all go pear shaped but then again it may not.

    In terms of the UK National Rail experience that bits over and its A pluses all round this time guys from this man on the ground.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Fascinating Percy. I presume it is all that discretionary travel that just dissipates. Video confencing equipment manufacturers must be gleeful! Do keep us posted, please as you head for Limoges.

  • RapidAssistant

    Friends of mine who were skiiing last week in the Alps weren’t so fortunate – they had to bus it overnight from Grenoble to London, then rent a car to Glasgow……so I think everyone has had a different experience.

  • Dan

    Good points Christian – yes, keep us posted Percy.
    Rapid – also another interesting insight. As a matter of interest, was there a reason why your friends had to bus it rather than train up to Paris (or perhaps one of the channel ports)?

    Seems to be more or less hourly services Grenoble – Calais with journey time approx 6 hours – but these are TGVs which could have been full of course. However, no doubt there are ‘classic’ services which don’t require reservations – not checked the DB timetable in detail, as I realise there may have been other reasons.

  • percy

    I got up for an 0830 breakfast, had a nice long chat about Dover Castle etc with the hotel owner, left to walk to ferry port 0945, lovely and sunny walk, , got here 1010am waited 5 mins to be served and booked at ticket £50 – Ouch! on the 1215 P&O Dover – Calais. Just missed final check for previous departure but advised that capacity wasnt the problem, just min check in time. So far its a nice and easy trip, no over crowded trains, all running on time, nice guest house with vacancies, no stress or queues at ferry port, waht awaits at other side in calais may be a different story, but the story so far is that there is no story.

  • Ian Griffiths


    There are strikes on in France at the moment. With the South-East region particularly badly hit last week. Information about which trains are running is very hard to get more than a few hours beforehand. I got a ticket for a friend last Friday and finally found the information on which trains were running on the Swiss Railways website!


  • percy

    Made it to Paris last night and then trains full until today so stopped in an Ibis hotel all arranged and booked by SNCF staff.

    Ferry Dover Calais frustratingly slow, not due to volume passengers, just not set up for foot passengers anymore, convoluted boarding, terminal board bus, passport control off bus and back on bus, security off bus with bags, scan bags etc, back on bus and finally off bus to board ferry.

    Could be worse, at Calais there was a huge line of British people trying to get home with hundreds more arriving every hour. So discretionary travel UK continent may have kicked in which suggests we maybe dont really need any more railways, roads or runways just that a lot of our journeys are not really necessary.

    Cost wise with Dover and Paris hotels Im into this for 350 – 400 GBP so may as well have bitten bullet and paid Eurostar open ticket price and got there in the day for same money. Perceived savings not there in reality and changing modes no longer quick and easy.

    This trip would have cost 43 GBP Ryan Air, 30 GBP Petrol Airport, 24 GBP 8 days parking – I know thats cheap – god bless Liverpudlians who let strangers park in their back gardens and take them to the airport. So thats 97 one way in total compared to 350 – 400 GBP overland adventure. Obviously turn up and go Rynair ticket would have been expensive but even advance Eurostar couldnt compete with this price and I would much rather take the Eurostar. Either one is Too Cheap or the other Is Too Expensive or maybe somehwhere in between.

    Im seeing cost of this Ash Cloud to economy being quoted as 1.7 billion. How do we come to these figures and why do supposedly professional investigative news reporters so readily quote them without a single query. As a result of this Ive put an extra 350 to 400n GBP into the economy of UK and France all the other travellers are doing the same, some spending thousands, business is doing well from this Ash Cloud, just not the Airlines.

    Best go, have a train to Limoges in an hour. Over an out.

  • Dan

    Ian – I see – thanks. Percy – good report – good points too. Ferries being not set up for on foot is a pain (same when I went overnight to Brittany last summer – the bus ride across a tarmac area I could have walked across being esp daft). You are right about the stats – they come from the well known ‘Department of Imaginary Statistics’ which is frequented by many journos and politicos. I think they specialise in data on manure, but range over other areas when they feel like it!

  • Passengers also wonder why the accident relief team reached so late when they were only 10km away.