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

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Training Coordinator - Financial Services

£32000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor