Eurostar slammed over hopeless contingency plans

Eurostar has been heavily criticised in its handling of the 'fluffy snow' fiasco. No surprises there then...

Last Updated: 20 Jul 2011

Some small consolation for those passengers who got stuck in the Channel Tunnel all night at the end of last year: Eurostar has taken a bit of a bashing in the report looking into the disruption of its services before Christmas. The report found that the company’s ‘winterisation’ programme wasn’t comprehensive enough; and then when disaster struck, contingency plans for helping the 100,000 customers left stranded by the delays were ‘insufficient’. Staff weren’t let off the hook, either: the report criticised train crew who appeared to ‘go into hiding’ during the power failures. Oh dear. We’re not sure what’s going to hurt more: the damage to the company’s reputation or finding the £30m to implement the report’s recommendations…

As unlikely as it seems, there may have been some truth in Eurostar’s claims that the chaos was down to the wrong type of snow. Eurostar carries out its ‘winterisation programme’ (i.e. testing its stock for winter) every year on all of its trains - but December’s snow was apparently finer than usual, which meant it managed to creep through the grills on the side of the power car. Then when the train entered the sauna-like tunnel, the snow melted, causing the train’s electrics to short-circuit. Sadly, this excuse didn’t cut it with the report’s authors, Christopher Garnett and Claude Gressier, who said trains ‘had not undergone sufficient weather preparations’ to withstand ‘extreme weather conditions’ (although December in Kent must barely qualify as such). We're not quite sure how you test for thinner snow, or what they would have done about the grilles if they'd noticed, but still.

When disaster did strike, the report added, Eurostar didn't have much of a plan B in place - as 2,500 customers discovered as they languished on trains stuck in the tunnel (and a further 100,000 back at home found their Christmas holiday plans in tatters). Conditions for those in the tunnel were pretty grim – customers moaned that they had been left in the dark, or in baking hot conditions, with no food or water or access to toilets (yuck). The other thing that really got passengers' goat (and you can’t blame them) was Eurostar’s communication skills – or rather, the lack thereof. And it seems that the report’s authors agreed with them, saying that ‘provisions of information to passengers in stations, through the call centre and via the website was not satisfactory’.

The report concluded that Eurostar must now make urgent improvements to train reliability, evacuation procedures and the way it manages disruption. This kind of upgrade work doesn’t come cheap – it’s likely to cost in the region of £30m, and that's not including the piles of cash paid out in compensation to customers, or shelled out on hotel rooms. Still, the alternative - that we all choose to take the plane next time we cross the Channel - is probably worse.

In today's bulletin:

Euro slumps again as sluggish Germany scuppers Greek bailout
Eurostar slammed over hopeless contingency plans
Passion on the job this Valentine's Day
Stress? Not on my watch, say managers
Psychology at Work: Terry, Toyota and Trust

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