Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Who is to blame for Eurostar chaos?

The malfunctions that caused six Eurostar trains to break down could be down to bad luck, says transport commentator Christian Wolmar, but the company's response has been woeful.

The breakdown of six trains and the subsequent closure of the Eurostar service for three days highlights two areas of concern for the train company.

Eurostar terminal at St Pancras
Games of cards pass the time for stranded passengers

First there was a major technical problem which so far remains partly unexplained, but then there was the complete lack of urgency about the remedial measures, both to deal with the passengers on the broken down trains but also to help those whose journeys have been affected.

The technical aspects of this affair will take a long time to unravel.

Five northbound trains broke down within a few hours of each other, all in the Channel Tunnel, an unprecedented event which clearly requires a detailed investigation.

Eurostar say that the problem was due to an accumulation of snow in the back power car - there is one at each end - which caused condensation when the trains went into the warm tunnel where the ambient temperature is 25C, resulting in water affecting the electronics.

However, it is bizarre that as a result of the particular weather conditions, five trains should fail so soon after one another when Eurostar management claim that this problem had not manifested itself before.

The weather was indeed extremely cold in France and the snow was, apparently, particularly light and fluffy, which meant it blew in through the louvred-type ventilation panels of the power car.

Conditions on Friday were "exceptional" with high snowfall, "fluffier" than normal snow and high temperatures and humidity within the tunnel
Chief executive Richard Brown said he was "very, very sorry" about what had happened

But it seems extraordinary that such weather conditions had not occurred before in the previous 15 years during which these trains operated.

In fact, unofficial reports suggest there have been other similar incidents in the past when trains have failed in the cold weather and it is possible that these were not sufficiently examined to assess whether there was a systematic problem.


The technical problems may, though, be put down to extreme bad luck as well as extreme weather, but there is no such excuse for Eurostar's handling of the situation.

First, from reports of passengers on the train from Disneyland, one of the five which broke down in the tunnel, it is clear that instead of the train manager taking responsibility for ensuring there was a proper evacuation, an off-duty policeman took over.

This will raise questions about Eurostar's training and management. The staff, in the words of one passenger, went AWOL.

Over the past three days, as all services have been cancelled, the company gave the impression of dithering and failing to inform those affected.

Eurostar should have made far more strenuous efforts to try to set up an alternative service

It was a very difficult situation, but with lots of staff available from the cancelled services, much more support could have been offered to those stranded by this debacle.

Cancelling all trains seems to have been a panic measure. Sure, there was a risk of further breakdowns, but the company could have ensured that sufficient rescue locomotives were available and they could have warned any potential passengers that the journey might take longer than normal.

A train breakdown is not life-threatening and people could have been given the choice of travelling or not.

Nor has the company taken sufficient responsibility for trying to get people to their destination.

For example, there are now high-speed trains serving the Kent ports from St Pancras which would then enable people to take a ferry and finish the journey through to Paris or Brussels by train.

Eurostar terminal at St Pancras
Eurostar has been criticised for its response

Eurostar should have made far more strenuous efforts to try to set up an alternative service using this route.

It did arrange for 500 of the "most vulnerable" passengers to go this way on Sunday, but there should be contingency plans to make much greater use of this alternative now that it is available.

With foresight, it would even be possible for TGV trains to come to Calais-Ville, and therefore speed people through to Paris on fast trains. This whole episode has demonstrated that the modern rail industry is notoriously inflexible.

Even now that services are likely to be restored on Tuesday, no extra services are being planned.

Eurostar's reputation will have been greatly damaged by this situation, possibly more by its aftermath than by the initial breakdown.

The only winners are British Airways which only a week ago was facing cancellations and now are laying on extra services. A week can be a long time in the transport industry.

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster specialising in railways and his latest book is Blood, Iron & Gold, How the railways transformed the world, published by Atlantic Books

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