Report blames Eurostar for not winterizing trains, says it must improve its communications

Friday, February 12, 2010

Report blames Eurostar for not winterizing trains

LONDON — A review concluded Friday that Eurostar must do more to protect electronic gear on its high-speed trains from melting snow to avoid debacles like one that stranded five trains in the undersea tunnel between France and Britain.

The review said filters apparently failed to prevent moisture from causing short circuits in the December incidents and needed to be improved. It also said the company had to improve communication during emergencies in the tunnel.

Eurostar said it planned to spend €30 million ($41 million) to deal with the issues, including €12 million already earmarked for new communications systems in the tunnel.

“Our duty now is to ensure that we quickly regain the trust of our customers,” said Eurostar Chief Executive Richard Brown.

The report said Eurostar was simply unprepared for severe winter weather and that routine maintenance procedures were inadequate, even though the company had had problems in such conditions since 1996.

“There is absolutely no doubt that these incidents were caused by a large quantity of fine snow entering the power cars and being sucked through the ventilation to the electronic control cabinets,” the report said.

“It is surprising that the electronic control cabinet does not have a door fitted and is open to the buildup of snow,” the report added.

On the evening of Dec. 18, five trains broke down in the 50-kilometer (31-mile) Channel Tunnel, the only land link between Britain and the European continent. Some 2,000 travelers were delayed for up to 16 hours, and at least 40,000 others had their travel plans upended by a subsequent three-day suspension in Eurostar service at the height of the holiday travel season.

Eurostar commissioned Christopher Garnett, a former executive of Eurotunnel and former CEO of British passenger train company GNER, and Claude Gressier, France’s Inspector General of Bridges and Roads, to investigate the debacle.

“Passengers must never go through this experience,” Garnett told a news conference. “Please, Eurostar, get it right.”

The first train to fail, a Brussels-to-London service, was towed out of the tunnel about an hour after it stalled, and six trains subsequently got through without trouble.

However, a train from Paris, which had been delayed outside the tunnel for 35 minutes failed a half hour into the tunnel. Three more trains behind it also stalled.

Passengers stuck on the trains complained that there was no information, no food, no water and confusion about evacuation procedures.

The report called for better crisis communication between Eurotunnel and Eurostar. The train manager needs direct access to the crisis center, rather than working through the train driver who would be preoccupied with his own problems, the review said.

The reviews also said Eurostar must better inform passengers when delays occur and improve communications between trains in the tunnel and controllers and emergency services.

It recommended establishing a videolink between the two companies’ crisis control centers and said that a facility should be introduced as soon as possible for Eurostar and other train companies to communicate with train crews inside the tunnel.

The review recommended train managers be given stress management training similar to that given to airline crews.

The review said that in cases of emergency, Eurostar should examine the possibility of communicating with passengers by e-mail, text message, Twitter and Facebook.

Eurostar has been a difficult company to manage, with different groups in charge in London, Paris and Brussels, Garnett said.

Eurostar said a transition to a new structure to bring operations under a single umbrella is “well advanced.” Brown will become deputy chairman in April, charged with implementing the new structure, while Guillaume Pepy, president of the French railway system SNCF, will continue as chairman.

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