It seems incredible that a snowfall could cause one of the world’s most advanced trains to break down. What went wrong? Claude Gressier, co-chairman of the review, made clear that Eurostars had regularly suffered problems for two reasons. They need 40 per cent more power than a standard French TGV and require multiple electrical and signalling systems, but need to pack it into the smaller body that fits under British railway bridges and tunnels. The result is that different bits of electrical equipment are very close to one another and there is a lack of space. Those conditions led to many of the problems that occurred over the fateful period – notably short circuits between electrical coils and the roofs of three trains.
Things sounded pretty unpleasant for the hapless passengers. Why couldn’t more have been done to help them? The report says that some passengers – particularly those returning from Disneyland Paris, who were transferred to a Eurotunnel car shuttle – should have been rescued more quickly. It suggests arrangements should be made for failed trains to put up their pantographs – their power collectors – in the tunnel to provide air conditioning and light. The fundamental problem was that, once the electrical systems failed, the pantographs automatically came down and the trains relied on batteries for light and ventilation. They were inadequate to keep passengers comfortable amid the tunnel’s 25°C heat. The first failed train seems to have simply been hauled out of the tunnel. Why weren’t the rest? Eurotunnel deploys only two rescue locomotives. The first hauled the 18.59 Brussels to London train out of the tunnel to London St Pancras. The second got stuck behind subsequent failed trains but eventually pushed two of them out together. Passengers from the remaining two trains had to be evacuated on Eurotunnel’s own shuttles. The report recommends the deployment of more rescue locomotives in future. The crowds of angry passengers at St Pancras weren’t good for Eurostar’s image. How can it avoid that in future? The report recommends Eurostar has better contingency plans for shifting passengers to ferries and airlines in emergencies. But on this occasion the weather would have caused serious problems no matter what. When 40 per cent of flights to and from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport were cancelled, Eurostar’s efforts to charter flights collapsed. Everyone seems to have got very confused both during and after the event. Neither Eurotunnel nor Eurostar could talk directly to train managers during the breakdowns. Tunnel communications all go through the drivers to ensure they keep control of what is happening. But, with drivers concentrating on the trains’ failures, there were real problems relaying information. The report recommends new telephone systems be introduced. Will it happen again? The report recommends changes to the trains that should make them more robust. Eurostar hopes the formation of a single Eurostar company this year will raise maintenance standards. Those steps make it unlikely such a catastrophic series of failures will be repeated