Rail 635: Eurostar enquiry will highlight long term failings

Eurostar has attracted a fantastic amount of criticism over the debacle in the run up to Christmas when five trains failed in quick succession in the tunnel. Now that the air has cleared somewhat, it is worth examining whether Eurostar deserves all the flak it has received

  Certainly, Eurostar has done well to appoint Christopher Garnett the former boss of GNER along with a French colleague, Claude Gressier, is conducting a quick and dirty investigation into the events running up to Xmas and is hoping to publish the report by the end of the month. He will have his work cut out.

Let’s try to disentangle the issues and assess whether Eurostar deserves the brickbats. First, the train failures. In fact, to some extent Eurostar has got off lightly here. My conversations with engineers suggest that these failures were a long term problem which had not been properly addressed. Sure, the weather conditions were unusual and it was both the wrong sort of snow (fine and cold) and too much of it which contributed to the disruption.

 However, this has happened before. According to a Eurostar manager with whom I spoke, condensation on the circuit boards of the power car have happened before. They become very cold and when the warmer atmosphere of the tunnel hits them, the condensation causes the electronics to fail. Eurostar management say in response that this problem used to occur on a part called the common block, but these recent failures were down to another board called the motor block. They also say that the failures occurred because of snow getting into the rear power car, something which had not happened before.

 This still begs an awful lot of questions about whether sufficient work was done in preventing this problem. It is not a new one. A contact of mine in the USA pointed out that there were mass failings of diesel engines in the United States following a blizzard in February 1958 that were down to similar unusual conditions. However, engineers cannot plan for every eventuality.  On the initial breakdowns, therefore, the jury must be out. Eurostar might have done better to investigate existing faults but then on the other hand hindsight is always 20/20 vision.

 The second issue is the performance on board. Here there is little doubt that at times the behaviour of the Eurostar staff was nothing short of scandalous and suggests that widespread retraining is required. The evidence from passengers, expressed remarkably articulately and coherently, is unequivocal. Eurostar staff were found wanting and did not communicate sufficiently with passengers and, amazingly, on one train three off-duty police officers took control of the evacuation.

 Partly, this may be cultural. It is perhaps rather indelicate to point this out, but most of the staff on the trains are French – because of the failure of the British educational system to teach children even basic French and Eurostar workers need to be bi-lingual – and they do seem less willing to respond positively in an emergency than their British counterparts. The suggestion from Eurotunnel that some of the Eurostar staff were begging to be relieved from duty in the middle of the crisis certainly suggests that this aspect needs thorough investigation.

 Thirdly, there was the response on the day following the breakdowns. Here again, Eurostar does seem to have been found wanting. There was a lack of lateral thinking. If the company knew no trains were going, they could easily have opened up the whole departure lounge to customers, many of whom might not even have had a bed to sleep in that night. ‘Security’ is not a good enough excuse for failing to provide for passengers. In fairness, Eurostar’s customer relations did improve the following day, on the Sunday, when they started disbursing free coffee and croissants, and had many more staff in the departure area to help the passengers.

 Overall, though, the most obvious failing was the absence of any sort of standard contingency plan for these eventualities. After all, the previous major breakdown was the fire just over a year previously. Getting people across the Channel is not rocket science especially now that there is a high speed service from St Pancras to the Channel ports. Of course there are difficulties, such as getting between the railway station and the embarkation points, now that foot passengers are a rarity – and not even taken on some ferries. But that is what the word ‘contingency’ should be about. People would much rather get there somehow, albeit late, than not travel at all. Eurostar was all too ready to give up the ghost and simply turn people away rather than trying to make do. Where was the Dunkirk Spirit or the Windmill ethic of the show must go on? 

 There are, too, various more nebulous issues surrounding the cancellation of all trains. For example, there was an industrial dispute which Eurostar kept quiet about involving 70 ASLEF drivers who claim they have not been sufficiently recompensed for their meal and overnight allowance since November 2008. The company offered them half the £1,250 they were claiming and they rejected the deal, and went on strike on the day of the breakdowns. Their services were covered by French drivers but clearly that was a further constraint on Eurostar’s ability to recover from the crisis.

 Finally, Mr Garnett will have to look very carefully at the relationship between Eurotunnel and Eurostar which now appears to be at its nadir following the publication of an intemperate and belligerent statement from Eurotunnel issued on, of all days, Christmas Day. It certainly demonstrated little seasonal goodwill, in attacking Eurostar in the most forthright terms, saying that it was against safety procedures to allow people to take their bags (why, given it was not an urgent evacuation and leaving luggage behind would have caused untold hassle to hundreds of people) and it went on to attack the basis of the Garnett enquiry, saying it was ‘wrongly called an Independent Enquiry Commission (because they are not independent, nor are they an Enquiry Commission in the sense of the Concession…’).

 Eurotunnel, it seems, were not at fault for anything. They acted with utmost professionalism, unlike Eurostar, the Kent Police (although why Mr Plod carried out security searches is beyond comprehension) and anyone else concerned. Even if that were true, such a statement is deeply damaging to public confidence in the tunnel. People don’t want to know that the two companies responsible for their safety are at loggerheads. It was truly a remarkable attack given that Eurostar is Eurotunnel’s biggest customer, though it has little choice in the matter. Thankfully the spat was overshadowed by the failed terrorist attack on the transatlantic plane as otherwise it would have brought further damaging publicity to the railways, but it does not bode well for future relations between the two parties.

 On the whole, Eurostar appears to have deserved much of the opprobrium poured on it. There is little doubt that the Garnett report will take longer than January to produce since there are numerous complex issues, both technical and operational, to examine.  While not wishing to pre-empt his enquiry, I suspect that he will find that most of the criticisms of Eurostar were perfectly valid such as on the issue of previous failings, the on board communications, the failure to provide for people held up by the breakdowns and the lack of a detailed contingency plan. Moreover, Eurostar kept secret the fact that a dispute with drivers contributed to its difficulties and it panicked by cancelling all trains rather than trying to do the best with the available stock. I’m afraid that much of this is down to the top management and it does not take a Mystic Wolmar to predict that there will be major changes there in the near future.


Station announcements


I have been inundated with emails in support of the campaign to reduce the number of announcements on the railway. To give support to this campaign, which several Rail columnists have written about, I invite readers to send in the most ridiculous offerings. There is no shortage of potential offerings such as those injuncting ‘no skateboarding’ or warning about the risks of slippery floors in ‘inclement weather’ on blistering hot June days. However, I do agree with reader Mike Hanscomb that ‘the door buttons are now activated’ which, as he puts it, ‘pervaded the far-from-tranquil atmosphere several seconds after the squealing door alarm had sounded’ on his journey between Clapham Junction and Reading is currently the leader in the field. There can be no excuse for this one: the tone can be heard by the blind and the light on the button by the deaf – so surely there is no DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliance issue? Or am I missing something?

 My own particular bugbear, having travelled a lot on local trains recently, is the constant repetition on Southern of ‘this is coach number x of x’. I realise that at times this is important when trains are longer than station platforms, but surely these messages could be tailored to those eventualities rather than being repeated at every station on a journey with a dozen or more stops.

 The wider point is that these announcements make the product of train travel, to put it in the marketing terms beloved of the operators, a far less pleasant experience. The journey experience – to use another marketing term – is an important factor in people deciding to choose rail. Make it more unpleasant and you lose customers. Or is it that the operators know most of us have no alternative. Perhaps we will get ads for Coca Cola next. Perish the thought.

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