With its staff “in hiding” and both temperatures and panic rising, there were few worse places to be than aboard the “Disney train” during the Eurostar’s pre-Christmas debacle.
Five trains had broken down deep in the Channel tunnel on 18 December. But, said the authors of a report released yesterday (12FEB) examining the causes of the ensuing chaos, “of all the trains to really get in a mess, this was the worst train that you could imagine”.
The plight of passengers aboard train 9057 has been highlighted in a damning 87-page summary of an independent inquiry, commissioned after the Eurostar “meltdown” in heavy snow.
The December incident led to 2,500 people trapped in trains, and 1,00,000 stranded through delays. It cost the company GBP10m in compensation and caused untold damage to Eurostar’s image.
The document concludes that Eurostar had “no plan in place” to cope with such an event. As a consequence, passengers were treated “appallingly”.
It was “not a glorious rescue”, stated the report’s authors, but rather “an experience no passengers should be forced to go through again”.
The company was found “wanting” over its winter maintenance of trains, its emergency procedures and its communication with passengers, said the report’s authors, Christopher Garnett, a former chief executive officer of GNER East Coast Main Line, and Claude Gressier, a French transport expert.
The failure of the trains was caused after 40cm of fine snow fell over Calais and got sucked into the power cars. Once in the warm tunnel a build up of condensation, combined with metal dust in the tunnel, caused the electrics to short-circuit.
But, if the report was critical of the winter maintenance and snow-proofing of the trains, it was even more scathing about the performance both of Eurostar, and Eurotunnel, which operates the tunnel, in communicating with passengers.
On the “Disney train” the Eurostar crew “appeared to go into hiding”, and passengers were left without heating, lighting or information. There were 664 passengers on board, including many British families with small children returning from Disneyland, Paris, and it was left to an off-duty Essex police officer to “step in” and “take control” during the ordeal, which lasted 11 hours.
Having left Disneyland at just after 7.30pm, the train first got stuck behind a broken-down train, then stopped as the driver tried to move out of the tunnel. Despite temperatures of about 25C inside the tunnel, and humidity between 70-85%, the air conditioning, ventilation and lighting disappeared.
Parents stripped children and babies down to underwear and nappies. In the heat and dark, and with no information from the train operator, passengers “suffered stress and panic attacks”.
The crew was French, and English passengers could not understand announcements by the train manager due to the strong French accent.
The “crew were generally unhelpful, and appeared intimidated by passengers”. They “ignored passengers, refused to answer questions and appeared to go into hiding”, the report said.
A police officer on board, 35-year-old Chris Sedgwick, “stepped in, and, according to passenger reports, took control of the situation”, while an off-duty paramedic gave first aid, said the report. The passengers were offered no food or water. Eventually they started to open the train doors themselves, as PC Sedgwick and two other off-duty police officers helped.
The officers also oversaw the evacuation of passengers to a rescuing shuttle train as “no Eurostar staff were visible” and there was a “lack of instruction”.
But, if conditions on the Eurostar train were bad, “the conditions on the shuttle were, frankly, appalling”, said Garnett.
It was cold on the shuttle, which was normally used as a vehicle transporter, and “all passengers, including pregnant women and small children had to sit on greasy floors or lean again the sides of the carriage”. The report said “toilet facilities quickly became unpleasant”, being blocked and overflowing. Staff provided extra toilet paper, but no one to clean the facilities. “This led passengers to designating one carriage as an open toilet area.” No senior Eurostar or Eurotunnel staff were visible, and “no one walked through the train to see how people were”.
Of the 21 recommendations in the report, one advises that train managers be given special “stress management training” similar to that given air crews. There is also a suggestion that more rescue trains and speedier and more comprehensive evacuation plans are put in place. Modification and redesign of some parts of the trains, better lighting, and better communications in the tunnel are also advised.
Responding to the report, Eurostar said it had modified its trains and more work was being done. The company was spending GBP30m on implementing the recommendations, including GBP12m on a new communications system. It was, with Eurotunnel, buying two more rescue trains.
Eurostar’s chief executive, Richard Brown, said: “I know we let our passengers down before Christmas and I am determined to put things right. Our priority is to win back the confidence of our passengers by taking all the action necessary to prevent this ever happening again.” The report emphasised that Eurostar had no plan in place and had had to improvise. It concluded: “Passengers must not be forced to go through this again.”
“People were getting stressed and anxious. There was a young boy in my carriage who was in a terrible state because he had been in a house fire, and the alarms going off were giving him panic attacks. Somebody just needed to calm everybody down,” the Essex police officer said yesterday.
He approached the train manager and suggested he make regular Tannoy announcements.
“I said, if you can speak every 10 minutes, even if you say nothing, your’re saying something and people will think someone is in control. But he didn’t do anything.” With two other off-duty officers on board, PC Sedgwick, who is still undergoing his police training, realised they would have to “take control. It was dark, it was hot, people just wanted guidance. I was sending messages over the Tannoy asking people to remain calm, and to move around as little as possible.” “The conditions were horrendous during the evacuation. It shouldn’t have been left to someone like me.
“There should have been a contingency plan, an emergency box, people in high visibility vests, basic first aid equipment.
“People were trying to smash glass doors initially, which could have led to some serious injuries.
“If someone had severed an artery, for the two or three hours involved in evacuating the train there would have been no help for them.
“We were left to make our own judgments. Afterwards, on reflection, I was a little bit over-wrought by the fact any wrong decisions I made could have had catastrophic consequences.
“That responsibility was certainly more than I signed up for when I agreed to go to Disneyland.”
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010