Leading article: Eurostar was not just a mechanical breakdown

Events in the tunnel raise serious questions about emergency planning

Share
Related Topics

When something goes spectacularly wrong, it is often not just the initial failure, but the accumulation of secondary failures, that makes for a full-blown emergency. So it was with the Eurostar rail service this past weekend. It is not unheard of for one train to get stuck in the tunnel between France and Britain. But for five to be stuck at the same time, and for a sixth to seize up the following day – and for more than 2,000 people, many of them children, to be confined for many hours, with no reliable information, no sustenance and warnings of a possible shortage of oxygen, what began as an inconvenience became much more serious.

Early questions concentrated on why so many trains ground to a halt after they entered the tunnel. And here there was the beginning of an explanation: the sharp difference in temperature between an exceptionally cold northern France and the relative warmth of the tunnel had caused snow to vaporise and halt the trains. That, at least, was what Eurostar was saying.

Which itself raised its own group of questions. Northern France might be very cold at present, but it is not unheard of for the Continent to freeze at this time of year. Was the temperature gap between land and tunnel unusually wide that day, and was such a problem never anticipated in the planning? And if this combination of circumstances was not utterly exceptional, has some extra sophistication perhaps made the trains more vulnerable? After all, they have run more or less successfully in winters past.

But the mechanical breakdown is almost the least of the questions raised by what happened on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Why, for instance, were good trains apparently sent into the tunnel after bad, so that five were eventually stationary 250ft below the Channel? And why were the staff so poorly prepared and equipped for an emergency of this sort?

Little has been said about communications, save for the absence of information conveyed to trapped passengers. Can it be that train drivers are effectively incommunicado for the 17 miles they are inside the tunnel? Is the position of the trains not monitored? Are all communications – including within the train – knocked out by a power failure, and if they are, is there no back-up? And even if everyone was operating in an information vacuum, why was there no routine for keeping passengers in minimal comfort? Or, apparently, a standard evacuation procedure? Or, when the passengers were eventually rescued, no orderly provision for onward travel?

It is worth restating – though it is not an assertion that will be much heard in the coming days – that the Eurostar has proved a phenomenal success. Over the 15 years it has been operating, we have come to take the ease of cross-Channel travel it provides it for granted – which is one reason why its failures cause such disruption. It now carries 10 million passengers a year; it provides an eco-friendly alternative to the plane, reducing short-haul air traffic between the cities it serves. A by-product has been the arrival of the new high-speed lines on this side of the Channel.

For the time being, Eurostar passengers will have to accept whatever alternative travel arrangements can be made, along with the complimentary tickets, compensation and double "sorry" offered yesterday by the chief executive, Richard Brown. As a matter of urgency, however, Eurostar must explain what went wrong, why – and what it plans to do differently from now on.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003