EUROSTAR should improve its communications systems, winterisation practices and emergency evacuation procedures, and quickly, according to a damning report into the chaos caused by the failure of five trains inside the Channel Tunnel on the night of December 18.

Mr Christopher Garnett, former chairman of GNER, and Mr Claude Gressier, a board member of French National Railways (SNCF), chaired the independent inquiry called for by the British and French governments in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. They were critical of Eurostar's handling of the breakdowns and in particular the treatment of its passengers, stating that there was "no plan in place" to deal with the train failures.

Among the most pressing changes recommended in the 89-page report is for Eurostar immediately to adopt a GSM-R communications system to provide constant communication between train managers and Eurostar control when trains are in the tunnel. Train managers should be trained to regularly update passengers on what is happening during an emergency in order to quell any potential panic and, if required, announce clear evacuation instructions. Eurostar must also improve station information systems at London St Pancras and on the company's website, which were found to be inadequate following the breakdowns, and review why winterisation measures failed. The report recommends introducing better protection of electronic components, checking seals around the control cubicle door, and insulation of inductors with a redesign of the power car roof layout. More rescue trains should also be available in the event of a breakdown to guarantee a swift evacuation.

Thousands of passenger journeys were interrupted that evening and over the ensuing days in varying degrees of severity as extreme weather in northern France wreaked havoc with Eurostar's services after they entered the tunnel. Passengers from two trains were evacuated while Eurotunnel's Krupp-Mak recovery locomotives hauled the other three trains out of the tunnel between 22.03 CET and 03.37 the following morning.
The 19.37 train from Disneyland was the final train to break down and the worst affected. After entering the tunnel at 22.08 the train lost power in two of its motor blocs before being held up behind the 19.35 from Paris which was experiencing traction problems and was later evacuated. As the driver attempted to direct the train back towards France at 01.00, "explosion type noises" were heard and the remaining motor blocs of the train failed, bringing it to a standstill. 664 passengers on the powerless train went without food and water as they waited for instructions from Eurostar staff that was not forthcoming. With no air-conditioning, and very poor lighting, the temperature in the train soared as parents stripped infants down to their underwear to keep them cool while other passengers forced open doors to let air in.

A Eurotunnel train sent from Coquelles to transport the passengers back to France arrived at 01.49. However, conditions on the train were poor. Toilets were overflowing resulting in one carriage being designated as a public bathroom, while children and pregnant women were forced to sleep on a wet and greasy floor. After leaving Coquelles for Folkestone at 05.44, passengers were held in the service train at the British station for two hours until a replacement Eurostar service arrived. Delays in transferring passengers between the two trains meant the train didn't leave Folkestone for St Pancras until 10.30, arriving at 11.53. The actions of some Eurostar staff throughout the evening were described as derisory, with a few staff members reportedly locking themselves away fearful of severe passenger unrest.

Garnett says that it is clear that Eurostar was found wanting during the event, and that its rescue procedures need to be speeded up. "You cannot just sit back and do nothing," he says.

Garnett stressed, however, that while the entire experience was certainly uncomfortable for the passengers involved, the evacuation was conducted safely and at no stage were people's lives in danger.

"The evacuation was carried out safely," he says. "We saw nothing that said if there had been a fire you wouldn't have been able to get people off those trains very quickly and into the cross tunnel passage. The point here, however, is that the tunnel procedures, whilst they recognise the issue of air-conditioning and what the experience on the Eurostar train is like, don't seem to elevate them fast enough to the fact that this could become an emergency with people wanting to get off, which is what happened with the train from Disneyland."

In light of the report's recommendations, Mr Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar, says the company will implement all of the changes outlined, in addition to improvements that Eurostar has already identified, as soon as possible. Eurostar has pledged more than £30 million to improve the resilience of its trains as well as to improve passenger care during disruption and customer communication both inside and outside of the tunnel.

"We welcome the review," Brown says. "We have accepted all of its recommendations and we've committed ourselves to implementing them as soon as we possibly can... I recognise that we need to work very, very hard at Eurostar to regain the confidence of our passengers, and I'd like to assure you that everyone at Eurostar is absolutely committed to taking all of the action necessary to make sure that the disruption before Christmas never happens again, and that we win back the trust of our passengers."

In total the report outlines 21 recommendations for changes that Eurostar should make within two months of its release in three areas:

  • • train reliability
  • • evacuation and rescue procedures and,
  • • managing disruption and improving communication.

In addition to the investigation into why the snow filters proved to be inadequate, the report requests that an inventory of the points at which snow penetrated the sensitive electrical equipment is compiled with a view to installing covers to keep snow out of signalling and data systems. Glassfibre should similarly be used to insulate the motor-bloc inductors as part of a redesign of the power car roof during the trains' midlife upgrades, scheduled for this year.

The failure of the pantograph led to the loss of power to the train's air-conditioning systems which caused such great distress to passengers during the breakdowns. The report consequently recommends that equipment should be installed so that the pantograph can be raised independently. Eurostar should also consult with other train operators, including Eurotunnel and those in Switzerland and Japan which operate in long tunnels, as it restructures emergency response procedures.

Included in this new plan should be methods to mobilise a rescue train quickly avoiding the 40 minutes in signalling delays that hampered the progress of the rescue locomotives towards the tunnel. Eurostar ought to consider the introduction of 24-hour call centres capable of answering a high volume of calls during an emergency and explore communicating with passengers directly by email to keep them updated on the delays. Food and drink should be made available to passengers stuck at stations and an emergency help desk set up to deal with all enquiries. Eurostar tickets could be accepted on alternative train operator's services in the event of widespread delays to allow passengers to complete their journeys.

The report also recommends that Eurostar and Eurotunnel conduct a review of emergency evacuation procedures to include the possibility of staff opening train doors and manning them in case of a breakdown in the tunnel. It suggests improvements in emergency lighting as well as a review into the safety aspects of passengers taking their luggage from the train. Eurotunnel officials heavily criticised the decision to allow passengers on the Disneyland train to take their luggage with them during the evacuation. But after reviewing the circumstances in which passengers found themselves, Garnett argues that this "was the right thing to do" given the obvious need to access additional clothing in the freezing conditions at Calais and Folkestone.

Garnett says that he hopes April's restructuring of Eurostar from four separate entities into a single company will aid the implementation of the recommendations. As for the future of Eurostar management, including Brown, who has come under increasing pressure to resign in the aftermath of the event, Garnett says that such a move may stall the improvement process, which should remain a priority at this stage. Management changes, however, could be considered once the changes are implemented.

"I think that the key requirement is to implement the changes that we are recommending," Garnett says. "That is what passengers would expect, that is what passengers deserve. Changing management does not get changes implemented quickly. The key is to make the changes and to make them now."