Leading article: Eurostar was not just a mechanical breakdown

Events in the tunnel raise serious questions about emergency planning

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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most