Rail 638: No dead, no injured, too much fuss about Eurostar

It could have been a lot worse for the 152 passengers and crew when ice led to an engine failure. Indeed, they were lucky to escape alive but strangely the media coverage of the report into the incident was relatively muted – a few interviews with the heroic crew and a bit of technical explanation, but with only very minor injuries and no dead, the matter was soon forgotten.

 That, of course, was not the Eurostar pre Christmas breakdowns but the Boeing 777 which came down just short of the runway at Heathrow in January 2008 when its fuel lines were blocked by ice due to the unusual weather conditions. Even at the time of the accident, despite the availability of dramatic shots of the wreckage and harrowing tales of passengers expecting to die, the coverage was relatively short-lived. And when the final investigation findings were published a couple of days before the Eurostar investigation inquiry report there was very muted coverage mainly focussed on the ‘heroic’ pilot rather than on the basic failures which could so easily have caused a disaster.

 Contrast this with the Eurostar debacle also caused by unusual weather conditions, laced with bad luck: days of wall to wall coverage both of the event itself and at the publication of the subsequent review. I even did interviews for Ukrainian TV and Al-Jazeera, for chrissake, while Japanese film crews stalked St Pancras and there were no fewer than 20 film crews at the press conference to launch the report.

 OK, Eurostar did cock up badly but as Boris Becker famously said after losing when expected to win, ‘no one died’. Or was even hurt. In fact, there is, actually, much for the railways to be proud of about this incident. First, there is the fact that the Tunnel has shown itself yet again to be safe, even in difficult conditions. Despite three fires and other minor incidents, no one has been seriously hurt in any incident in the Tunnel. I’m sure had Mrs Thatcher got her way and a road tunnel had been built, we would not be able to say that.

 Secondly, the industry has shown itself ready to put its hand up and admit its faults. The decision by Eurostar to launch the inquiry and ensure it was carried out so quickly was highly commendable. The company has been able to lance the boil. I was asked repeatedly on the media whether there would be long term damage to Eurostar’s reputation and, more important, its market share and I simply pointed the questioner to the aviation industry. The Boeing 777 accident, the Terminal 5 opening mess, the pre-xmas disruption and, indeed, the general hassle of flying these days has barely dented aviation’s market. People still want to fly, and similarly, the basic service offered by Eurostar is so much better than the alternatives that it would take a lot more than one incident, however badly it was handled, to reduce the number travelling on its trains.

 That, however, is where the good news ends. Make no mistake, this report which pulls no punches is damning of a series of Eurostar failings which, I’m afraid to say, means that there must be management changes at the top. The report, which is well covered elsewhere in the magazine, does not suggest this, but highlights such a long catalogue of failings that it seems inevitable.

 First, there was the failure of anticipation. These kind of weather-related incidents had been happening right back to the early days of the Eurostar service. Sure, they were never quite the same and different electronic components failed. Nevertheless, there was no attempt to look at the issue of the effect of winter on these trains in a systematic way. This is reminiscent of, say, the series of SPADs in the Paddington throat which should have suggested that there was a fundamental failing in the signalling long before the Ladbroke Grove accident. A more proactive Eurostar management would have spotted the pattern and moved faster to prevent similar incidents.

 Secondly, the report makes clear that the standards of engineering in relation to ‘winterisation’ were patchy and that some trains had not been properly equipped. That again suggests a wider malaise that raises questions about the effectiveness of management.

 And thirdly, the lack of appropriate training for staff on the trains was nothing short of a disgrace. Apparently, while the bar staff had received some training for such eventualities, the catering staff had none at all – contrast this with airlines, which Eurostar has so often tried to emulate, where all staff have a high degree of safety training.

 Eurostar has responded by arguing that the complicated structure of the company contributed greatly to these difficulties. That is no excuse. I have always liked Richard Brown, the chief executive, who is thoroughly nice and honourable man. But it is clear that as chief executive he should not have accepted a situation where he did not have the ability, say, to ensure that the French staff was better trained to deal with emergencies. He should have thrown his weight about, given his title of chief executive.

 There are other reasons why I have long felt that Eurostar has always been rather complacent and smug. And Mr Brown has not done enough to change that. Admittedly he has been hampered by a complex structure with the result that Eurostar has no direct control over train crew working for the constituent railways, SNCF and SNCB, and that the trains have been maintained in the three countries which contributed to the pre-xmas debacle.

 Nevertheless, Eurostar shown a lack of innovation and failed to use its strength to put pressure on the governments to improve its position. For example, trains going through the tunnel are still subject to ridiculous safety rules that specify they have to be at least 365 metres long – so that they always line up with a door to the third tunnel if they break down – and that they should be capable of splitting in half to be driven out in the event of a mishap. Both these are ludicrous rules. The first suggests that a train would stop uncontrollably and instantly, whereas a driver would always be able to have some control over where it came to a rest, and in any case, there is a platform inside the tunnel that would allow people to walk to the door. The second, as I have mentioned before, is so crazy that it seems to add risk to a dangerous situation rather than remove it.

 Eurostar has also put up with equally bizarre arrangements for its passengers to exit St Pancras, forcing them to go downstairs rather than simply walking straight out which is what many people would want to do as  a result of ‘security’ and customs arrangements. The 30 minute check in is another case in point – a loss of advantage over the airlines for no good reason. And why can’t people simply walk up to the platforms in the normal way, rather than having to queue downstairs until 10 minutes before departure? There is no sensible ‘security’ reason for that.

 A stronger organisation would not have put up with all this nonsense and would have tried harder to improve the product by insisting on changes. I suspect if it had been Virgin running the trains into St Pancras, or indeed BA, they would have forced through changes to these arrangements to improve the lot of their passengers.

 The safety rules, as I understand it, are being eased to accommodate more flexible working – though these incidents will make it more difficult for the intergovernmental safety authority to push through changes that to the uninitiated may appear to be relaxing requirements and possibly putting passengers at risk. It will only take one tabloid editor to get his or her teeth into it for panic to ensure. These changes will be necessary if Deutsche Bahn is ever able to operate trains through the tunnel with their ICE trains. (let us hope that ‘Krauts in tunnel danger move’ never gets written!).

 The management structure of Eurostar is, thankfully, being changed so that there will be one clear line of accountability. This was supposed to have happened back in the early noughties but was stopped by the constituent railways but now it will be forced through, greatly improving the situation for Eurostar’s top management. That makes it all the more necessary to start with a clean sheet and an entire new team at the top to bed down the new structure and throw their weight around more than their predecessors.


Ticket complexity must be sorted out


It seems that every time I take a train, I have problems over ticketing. In the past I have lost entire fares I have paid in advance because of the train companies refusal to reimburse such tickets, even long before the journey is due to take place. My latest problem has been over what ticket to buy from a machine..

 On both the last occasions I used a train, I was leaving London in the rush hour peak to go to speaking engagements in commuterland and I have been unclear about whether to buy an ‘anytime’ ticket or an ‘off-peak’ one. Of course, there was no staff available to help me and the queue for the ticket offices would have made me miss my train. I realise that given my knowledge of the railways, I should probably know the answer and am being a bit scatty, but there is no reason why less experienced travellers would have any idea of what ticket to buy in these circumstances. And then they risk a penalty fare through an honest mistake.

 The train companies try to have it both ways – to treat us all as potential fare dodgers, and yet not provide the information needed to make the right choice. The latest ‘simplification’ was nothing of the sort and Lord Adonis should ensure in his final days in office that he sets in train a process to sort out ticketing issues which are becoming a real deterrent to people using the railways.

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