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.