An independent report on the breakdown and subsequent chaos caused by five Eurostar trains breaking down in the Channel Tunnel before Christmas was released today.
The report, commissioned by Eurostar and complied by Christopher Garnett and French transport expert Claude Gressier, recommended engineering improvements on trains to make them better prepared for snow and – if the worse-case scenario were to occur – comprehensive plans for evacuating passengers out of the tunnel.
The review found that the trains were unprepared for the severe snow fall and weather conditions in the area between London and Paris. On December 18, when the first breakdown occurred, 40cm of snow had fallen around the Calais terminal in a short period of time.
While the first train to fail recovered quickly, four trains that followed throughout the night and into the next day broke down in rapid succession and passengers from two of them had to be evacuated onto Eurotunnel passenger shuttles inside the tunnel. This was the first time an event like this has happened in 15 years of operation.
The evacuation of the trains was carried out safely and efficiently, the report pointed out; however, it mentioned that it was likely a frightening experience for passengers still on the Eurostar trains when they lost power, and subsequently air conditioning and lighting.
Before any trains run again during similar weather conditions, the report suggests a thorough design review of the Eurostar’s power cars. According to the report, one of the major causes for power failure was likely to be condensation.
The difference in temperatures between the outside and inside of the tunnel, and the atmospheric humidity within it, creates condensation that builds up on equipment in the power cars and cuts out electricity.
The report also pointed out that snow likely got drawn into the vehicle by the ventilation fans and this probably reached the power equipment. It is believed that these problems were likely not fully recognised at the time when the Eurostar power cars were being designed.
The review has proposed winterisation measures, which include checking the adjustment of the snow filters that are installed behind the bodyside window and door ventilation slats. It also recommended additional snow prevention measures at other sensitive points, and adjustments on cabinet doors and covers of electronic equipment racks.
Other suggestions included reducing speed to 170km/h to avoid creating snow clouds that could creep into power cars and safety measures, such as checking the state of the power cars before entering the tunnel. It also stressed the need for temporary technical support onboard the trains during snow conditions.
One of the more stinging critiques in the report was the handling of the knock-on effects following the breakdowns on 18-19 December. Eurostar passengers faced major disruption as services were suspended for three days in the run up to Christmas.
With 30,000 passengers due to travel each day, the report recognised that Eurostar could not have arranged alternative transport for all passengers. However, it labelled contingency plans for assisting passengers as ‘insufficient’ and claimed those passengers were provided with ‘unsatisfactory’ information in the station, at call centres and on the company’s website.
In a joint statement following the release of the report, co-chairmen Christopher Garnett and Claude Gressier said: ‘In an emergency, passengers need to have prompt information and regular updates. Eurostar must improve the way it communicates with passengers and put in place new systems and practices to achieve that.’
Responding to the review, Eurostar said that it will be investing more than £30m over the next 18 months to further improve passenger care during disruption, customer communication both inside and outside the tunnel, and the resilience of trains during severe weather conditions.