Page last updated at 17:26 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Eurostar handling of snow delays criticised

Inquiry chairman Christopher Garnett gives a list of recommendations

Eurostar has come in for tough criticism over its handling of the crisis that severely disrupted its services in the run-up to Christmas.

An independent review said that contingency plans for helping stranded passengers were "insufficient".

It also raised concerns over the poor conditions for passengers stuck on the trains in the Channel Tunnel.

A total of 2,500 passengers were left stranded in the tunnel for up to five-and-a-half hours.

A further 100,000 passengers were stranded because of delays, with services cancelled for three days after heavy snow in northern France caused the trains to lose power.

Carriages lost air conditioning and lighting as a result of the power failure, while sanitary conditions also quickly became unpleasant, with passengers forced to designate one carriage as an "open toilet area" after toilets became blocked.

Air conditioning and lighting failure
Unsanitary conditions after toilets became blocked
The report also criticised staff for "going into hiding"

The report, commissioned by Eurostar in the wake of the disruption, covered five breakdowns which occurred on 18 and 19 December.

'Insufficient preparations'

The report said that the trains "had not undergone sufficient weather preparations" to withstand "extremely severe" weather conditions.

Eurostar normally carries out a "winterisation" programme on all its trains to protect them from snow, but the snow before Christmas was finer than normal, according to Eurostar, and managed to get through the grilles on the side of the power car.

When the train went into the tunnel where it was much warmer, the snow then melted, short-circuiting the trains' electrics.

By Richard Scott, Transport correspondent

The report acknowledges that the Eurostar power cars are more powerful and sophisticated than the TGVs they're based on.

Because of their small size (to be compatible with UK tracks) and high power the trains have huge cooling demands.

But Eurostar didn't take some basic precautions to stop snow becoming a problem.

For example there was no door on a cabinet housing the electronic controls. One train had no snow screens at all on its power cars, whilst another didn't have any fitted around the motor.

There's also strong criticism of Eurostar's management for not carrying out a comprehensive review when it experienced other problems in previous years.

The report was critical of contingency plans in place for assisting passengers stranded by the delays, calling them "insufficient".

"Provision of information to passengers in stations, through the call centre and via the website was not satisfactory," it said.

It recommended improvements to the way Eurostar assists and communicates with passengers in the future.

The report recognised, however, that the volume of disruption meant that Eurostar could not have provided alternative travel to all affected passengers.

The company said it would refund the tickets of those affected and pay for out-of-pocket expenses, such as hotel accommodation and offer compensation, depending on how severely the passenger had been affected.

Evacuation review

The evacuation of the trains, which left passengers in the tunnel for up to five hours, was carried out "safely and efficiently" according to the report.

But concerns were raised over the conditions in the train carriages.

One of those trapped in the tunnel was Joanne Richards from Llanelli. She was travelling with her 13-year-old son, Jac, who has cerebral palsy.

Their journey, which should have taken just three hours, took 17.

The chief executive of Eurostar, Richard Brown: "We let a large number of our passengers down very badly"

"For a period of time I was on my own with Jac, which was very worrying," she said.

"Other passengers were great - they helped a great deal - and there was a blitz spirit, but by the end of the 17 hours Jac looked... really ill and we feared for him. It was really the trip from hell," she added.

Families returning from Disneyland Paris were forced to remove their children's clothing as temperatures rose, while others suffered panic attacks in the darkness.

Train crew were also criticised in the report for appearing to "go into hiding" during the power failures.

Recommendations made

The review's joint chairmen Christopher Garnett and Claude Gressier set out three core recommendations for Eurostar:

  • Train reliability - engineering improvements to enhance the reliability of its trains
  • Evacuation and rescue - improvements should be made to tunnel evacuation and rescue procedures, to ensure passengers can be transported from the tunnel quickly and effectively
  • Managing disruption and improving communication - improvements to assist passengers better and provide more effective communication in times of disruption.

Eurostar's chief executive Richard Brown said the company would be investing more than £30m in order to implement all the review's recommendations.

"I recognise that we let down a considerable number of our passengers very badly with the disruption and breakdowns before Christmas, and, once again, I'd like to say, on behalf of Eurostar, I am very, very sorry," he said.

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