Fri Oct 24 2014

The shame of Eurostar & Eurotunnel – Saturday January 9 2010

Categories: RAILBlog

This blog is intended to be read in conjunction with my Comment and News coverage in RAIL 635, about the traumatic experience which Eurostar and Eurotunnel inflicted on their customers over three days, December 19-21.

The failure of the five Eurostar trains in the Channel Tunnel on the evening of December 18 was bad enough and the sequence of events has been well chronicled in both general and specialist media. I don’t intend to repeat that chapter of cock-ups again here, nor do I intend to pick apart the cack-handed rescue/recovery operation, botched media response and other incompetence which was writ large throughout this ghastly chapter of events.

Managers far removed from the front line seem to have no conception of the misery they impose on ordinary folk when they get it wrong, or dither, or are risk averse in getting things moving when it goes horribly wrong. Is it because many of them today have not ‘come up through the ranks’ and are therefore managing a product they cannot see and have not had to deliver personally themselves?

I plead guilty to this charge myself. in the aftermath of an incident or accident, offering lots of specialist media comment, I too can get so wrapped up in talk of signals and track, motors, snow or human error, or whatever it’s about, that I also fail to really relate to (or sometimes even consider) in any detail what the passengers have gone through on the front line. That’s wrong – they are the most important people.

We all say we care and I’m sure, in our own ways, we do. But a bit of help and a cold water reality check don’t hurt once in a while - and so I urge everyone browsing here to read this excellent account, by wife and mum Emma Powney, of the 17 hours she spent in Eurostar’s and Eurotunnel’s ‘care’ on the evening of December 18.

It certainly put the events of December 18 into sharp focus for me. I have no doubt it will do likewise for anyone involved with today’s railway for Emma makes painfully clear what misery and trauma this industry is capable if inflicting those who pay so handsomely to make it all possible. And what’s worse is not so much the breakdowns – it’s the cack-handed, incompetent and seemingly uncaring way in which passengers were overlooked, herded around, ignored, forgotten and shamefully treated afterwards.

I defy anyone who has anything to do with the railway not to hang their heads in shame or grind their teeth in fury (or both) at Emma’s simple tale of the appalling experience inflicted on her family (and hundreds of others) by the railway.

Here’s her story:

“We boarded the Eurostar after our first delay on Friday night at 6.30pm from Disneyland.  It wasn’t too long into the journey that our train stopped after a couple of loud bangs from outside. By 10.00pm we had sat in the tunnel and been given very little info on what our predicament was, all except that a broken-down train was stopping our way from proceeding and that it would be 10 minutes until we got going again. Now, we should have been home already, so people are starting to get a tad irritated.

“An instruction from the tannoy tells us that the train is going to power down and that the lights will go off for a short time. So the lights go off and the kids have already been told to sit down a million times since we left, and are getting tired and restless.

“The train starts to get hot. Really hot. An argument breaks out at one end of our carriage between a group of adults that turns nasty. At the other end, a passenger is trying to force the doors open so we can get some air. The lights go on for a brief time, only to go off again, so adding to the already difficult situation.

A paramedic comes though and brings out a lady who is suffering badly, being claustrophobic. Kids have been stripped to their nappies and underwear, and what water we had is being shared between them all.

“The passenger working on the door finally gets it open, and a trickle of people jump the large gap between the train and the tunnel walkway. A girl starts hyperventilating and has to be taken to sit on the tunnel side. She is with her grandma who has another granddaughter asleep further down the carriage, so we assure her that while she checks on the sleeping one we will take care of the hyperventilating one.

“While this is going on the adults have reached breaking point at the end of our carriage and have kicked-off. My children are tired and crying, as it is so hot. Another toddler with his Dad is very quiet and is brought to the doors to try and cool down, although it was just as hot, if not hotter, in the tunnel. The little boy vomits everywhere and the dad is understandably shaky. Another lady, with her child wearing just a nappy, bursts into tears and gets hysterical, so I have a go at calming her down. My eldest son (5) has clearly had enough and sobs uncontrollably.

“Still no communication from Eurostar. We are still sitting/puking/walking/ crying/hyperventilating - all in the dark. Then ‘Dave’ from Essex police pipes up over the tannoy that it’s not safe to open the doors or get out. Sorry Dave, no option there, the restless have already done it!

“Finally, after a confusing period of time, we are told to gather ourselves and get off the train. Do we take our luggage, or leave it? Don’t know, as we are not told. So we gather ourselves up, dress the sweating kids in all their winter gear and we all get off the train, two tired kids, and all our luggage, crossing over the very large gap and we wait on the tunnel side for further instructions.

“We hope we have all our belongings, but we don’t know for sure because we couldn’t see anything in the dark. Also, may I add, there was no help from Eurostar staff in getting our stuff off the train or carrying it along the small walkway, with the two tired kids and all our further holiday shopping. We had to rely on strangers - very kind strangers - who saw we were struggling.

“But where do we go? We haven’t been told. A passenger tells us that we are to walk along the tunnel and follow the stream of other passengers, but this is easier said than done in an already stressful situation.

“After negotiating the tunnel walkway we cross over an intermediate tunnel with a van in it and are told by a passenger (not a member of staff) to board the train in the furthest tunnel, even though it normally only takes vehicles. So, we all board and find a place to dump our stuff.

“This train is mighty filthy, as you can imagine. It’s just for cars and the floor is wet. There’s still no communication from Eurostar. By this time it’s knocking on for 3am! Finally, my kids fall asleep through pure exhaustion. I have to use the blankets we bought at Disney to lay on the wet, filthy floor, so they could sleep. After an hour we are still sitting aboard the car train, and another argument breaks out.

“Finally we are told conflicting statements! One is that we will be going back to Calais to stay in a hotel and be given food. Another that we will be taken to Folkestone aboard the car train and there we will be transferred to a Eurostar train (is this so that to the outside world it appears that we made the journey by that train, with seats, rather than the car train on which we had to sleep on the dirtry, wet floor?) – and be taken to London. We, along with many others, weren’t heading for London, but Ashford, so that caused a row and more rioting broke out!

“Finally, around 4am, I lost it - and it all got too much. Looking at my kids being forced to sleep on the floor, exhausted and knackered, I had a "moment" before trying to calm down. After more hours of waiting we finally arrive at Folkestone. So we all get up and wake our kids up – but my eldest is sobbing as he is so tired, falls over, cries some more. Exhausted, filthy, cold, tired, laden with luggage and two sleeping kids, we wait patiently to try and get off the train.

“Another riot breaks out and in the row I hear a frantic mum pleading with a French worker. Another mum explains her son is now in need of medical attention; yet another explains that her baby has no more formula milk. A gentleman asks the workers to please sort out the disgusting toilets as his child needs to use them - they can’t, so the poor lad wees on the floor in front of a crowd of people. Another lady shoves a Eurotunnel worker and that’s when I called the police. The police assured me that they were on their way. It started to get really out of hand. Passengers begging to be let off the train, only to be told ‘no.’

After another two hours we are finally allowed off and have been assured that a proper Eurostar train is waiting for us. Well great, it is, but it’s locked and the crew to operate it isn’t there, so all the kids that have been woken up fall back asleep, only to have to be woken again to stand in the snow waiting to get on the locked/unmanned Eurostar.

While we queue we are told this train is not going to Ashford, which causes a lady behind me to ‘lose it’ with a police officer. She is threatened with being arrested and I feel for her as at this point we have been awake and travelled for 14 hours. I start crying as again this is just so traumatic, and I find an English police officer and practically beg him to tell me anything he knows. He shows great compassion and I finally felt a bit more human again.

We all get the news we want that the train will stop at Ashford. It’s 8am and we board the train, only to sit there for another hour to be told nothing. We then imagine it can only be a 20-minute journey to Ashford. A group walks in to our carriage and starts banging on the driver’s door, demanding information. It’s been 16 hours and we have been offered a pain au chocolat, the kids are inconsolable; we are at the end of our tether.

The train, after much stop-starting, gets us into Ashford at around 10am - two hours from getting into Folkestone. I felt like kissing the damn platform. Going through the station a tannoy announced that the barriers are up on the car park, so we don’t have to pay! "Oh wow" (clean version) we say, what generosity.

We are handed a sticker with the number of the Eurostar complaints/customer services to call, as there’s no chance to get the desk, and anyway we just need to get our kids home and back to some normality, a clean bed and a clean nappy, as we ran out of those 16 hours ago!

A further hour later we are home - THANK GOODNESS.

I can honestly say that there has been no apology, there’s been a "we understand your situation" - but no formal ‘sorry.’ The complete lack of communication was unbelievable. We were treated worse than transporting cattle - I’m sure at the very least they would have been fed.

I can appreciate that this is an odd situation, but surely a large company like Eurostar would have had some form of contingency plan, some kind of procedure to follow. All we had was a very frightened French Eurostar worker who was shaking so much that he was of no use, too afraid of the passengers that had been held in for too long. I felt for him.

I can only thank the people that helped us throughout this ordeal: the group of Scottish ladies with their children, the gent who kindly gave us nappies, the young ‘uni’ lot who ran around getting us water, and most of all Darren, Stacey and Milly who helped us with our luggage, our kids and me when I finally went mental at a French worker.”

How can the railway be so badly organised to inflict such cruelty – for that’s what this was – on its customers? Although there are clearly issues about the breakdowns themselves (along with many engineers, I remain sceptical about the reasons being given for the failures) I find myself angrier about the clear lack of an emergency plan afterwards – or the fact that it was so badly rehearsed as to have been virtually useless.

Like Emma, I really feel for the solitary member of Eurostar staff, alone on a train of maybe 700 panicking passengers, who probably had no information himself, given that Eurostar seemingly cannot talk to its own staff in the tunnel. All communications, it seems, are through Eurotunnel. That sole member of Eurostar staff must have been not so much as terrified as, rather terrified OF the increasingly distressed, angry and panicking passengers.

Why does it take five or six HOURS to get a train out of the tunnel? And if it has to stay there so long, there’s a perfectly good service tunnel through which specialised vehicles can travel, why can’t extra, specially–trained staff to assist and reassure be quickly put aboard? Likewise water, and food?

If the problems ARE so bad as to require the train to sit there for the equivalent of a working day, why not use the service tunnel to get food, water and maybe emergency power aboard for the hotel facilities? Why do they just have to be left to nearly suffocate in soaring temperatures and airlessness?

Why were passengers made to traipse around like refugees, lugging their own luggage?

Why aren’t there a pair of Class 92s (God knows there are enough of them lying around) on Thunderbird duty at each end of the Tunnel, ready to go at a moment’s notice?

Why did Eurotunnel take the moronic view that this was a ‘technical breakdown’ and not an emergency?

Why couldn’t the most basic things be done properly or even done at all?

The questions just go on… and on…and on….

And what explanations have we had?

Boiling it down, it goes like this:

Eurotunnel blames Eurostar.

Eurostar blames ‘unique’ snow, which it says ‘has never been seen before’, for which it says it cannot be expected to have been prepared.

Chris Garnett’s independent report must make sense of this shambles – otherwise his own top-notch reputation will be tarnished by this masterclass in incompetence from Eurostar and Eurotunnel.

Here’s one suggestion, Chris, for after the important big recommendations are made. Why not ask Emma if her account can be made available as part of the mandatory training for anyone who has anything to do with Eurotunnel and Eurostar? 

Better still, ask her and some of the others she says shared her family’s ordeal to stand up in front of these ‘managers’ and have them tell those who failed them so badly just what misery their dithering and failings put them through. Eye to eye.

Unless managers who have to deal with these incidents understand – properly - what these people really went through, they might just act too slowly again next time trains break down in the tunnel.

Because we all know it will happen. But there’s no excuse not to be prepared.






Date (Newest First) - Date (Oldest First) - Rating (High to Low) - Rating (Low to High)
Comment by:Tom
Comment left:14:25:29
Jan 20, 2010

This is awful, but thanks for posting this Nigel. Indeed, as a railway employee, this was a shameful day. As this is an issue of unparalleled importance, could you, James Abbott, Sim Harris and the editors of the other periodicals get together and re-print this account in full in your next editions, perhaps alongside your leaders? It might serve as a wake-up call to all your readers, and guarantee coverage. A lot of this appears to stem from the somewhat 'special' status the Chunnel has always been dogged with. It's seen as some kind of uniquely hazardous piece of railway infrastructure, with its own weird and wonderful issues that only a handful of feted people can grapple with or understand; hence the communication problems. Granted, it's a very long tunnel with no intervening shafts, but if a HST failed in the Severn Tunnel like this the effect on passengers in real terms would be the same - yet somehow the Severn is a 'normal' tunnel. Anyone who's tried to develop new passenger services under the Channel will tell you they've given up at the dead hand of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, who preside over a stretch of line they appear to regard as insurmountable for normal trains. Why do I mention all this? Because perhaps if the Channel tunnel was treated more as just a railway, rather than an aberration, we'd have experienced railway operators in charge of it, instead of faceless committees and abstract regulations.

Comment by:Kevin Steele
Comment left:09:07:43
Jan 14, 2010

I don't have much to add to this as other posters have pretty much summed it up, but I just think it is sad that in a matter of weeks that the industry could follow up its finest hour in years - the response to the Workington floods - with a shambles such as this. But personally I think its symptomatic of the "throw in the towel" attitude to adversity that we've seen across the board in the public transport industry that when disaster strikes, people just don't seem to want to rise to the challenge - I'm thinking here of the responses to bad winter weather in the last year or so. What ever happened to British grit and determination to get things moving again? Never mind BR, not even Ryanair could be as bad as this!

Comment by:Thomas Watson
Comment left:19:27:36
Jan 11, 2010

Nigel - a very well written piece and the travelling public DO deserve answers. However, I am not totally convinced even Chris Garnett will get to the truth, such as why so many trains were allowed into the tunnel after a failure; and no one has mentioned where the passenger and freight shuttles were in the line of trains. And as you point out where was the contingency - a handful of diesels is not the answer. Leaving the Eurostar debacle on one side, when other parts of the network go tits up, my personal experience as a regular traveller is that all too often there are too many chiefs (squabbling in offices) and not enough indians on the front line to deal with passengers. My own view is that this might stem from the fact each train operator has it's own control office, as does Network Rail, and there are simply too many people each with a vested interest trying to work out priorities. This is a mess created by privatisation. The result is that the message does not get to the public facing staff - many of whom melt into the background when a crisis occurs. Sorry if that may seem unpalatable, but I've seen it at St Pancras (wires down at Luton) and Euston (wires down somewhere) - no staff, no answers, sort yourself out. You saw exactly the same type of actions from Eurostar staff (or lack of). As for their PR response, what an utter disgrace. The debacle was the rail industry's 'Terminal 5'. Passengers are frequently not being told that in emergency situations like this, other operators are accepting tickets and so the passengers stand sheep-like clogging up a concourse where no trains are going to run. The industry as a whole needs to make decisions quicker, and get that decision to staff fast.

Comment by:Stuart
Comment left:18:16:33
Jan 10, 2010

Where do you begin? Reading Emma's comments even those of us who might claim to understand the working of the railway would have been hard pressed to keep our cool. Full marks to the compassionate police officer. No marks at all for the jobsworth who thought that threatening an arrest was the appropriate action. I applaud your suggestion that Emma's experience should be used as a case study to be used in the revised training that will now be introduced. Having been impressed with Richard Brown in the past, I was astonished at his media interviews. I presume he has advisors, and I do appreciate he would have been under pressure, but the content of his broadcasts, both the words he used, and the locations in which he chose to be interviewed, were extremely poor. As you rightly say, Chris Garnett really does have to deliver.

Comment left:11:10:08
Jan 10, 2010

A truly awful story/event. Nigel, you have said it all. As a retired railway employee I am disgusted at the treatment of these passengers. Even BR would've had a job to be so bad. Will heads roll? I doubt it.

Comment by:Philip Wylie
Comment left:10:09:52
Jan 09, 2010

This is indeed a sad story. It proves that we are putting systems and health and safety above human need at all times. Someone has to have the courage to break the cycle in such emergencies and 'love thy neighbour as thyself'. I wonder what the cleaning bill for the Eurostars came to...................... As another example of madness, although not in the same league as Eurostar, Southeastern's draconian timetables of late have not endeared them to the public. Examine the emergency timetables closely and you'll find all the metro services off by 20.30ish (Hayes 19.30). It's been said that this action prevents them paying out compensation on the normal timetable should things go wrong, yet adjacent Croydon Tramlink and Southern Metro services coped pretty well.

Comment by:Steffen
Comment left:14:19:27
Apr 09, 2012

Unbelievable. People should've been sent to jail for GBH and kidnapping over this. I would've literally just smashed windows to escape the temporary prison at several points in the story. I have written Eurostar to demand an official reply and explanation of future plans. Thank you very much for posting this terrible personal account.


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