On 30 December, 22 Eurostar trains were cancelled because of a flooded tunnel near Ebbsfleet. Some 30,000 people, milling around at St Pancras, at Gare du Nord in Paris and Brussels-Midi, could not get to their holiday destinations. All high-speed trains in Kent were also cancelled. What is the backup plan? Why is resilience not a requirement in all such mass transport operations?
You can imagine the situation at dawn on that day. Water lapping up to the safety walkway in the tunnel under the Thames.
“We can’t drive through that”, say the drivers.
On the concourse, the Eurostar staff survey the eager crowds trundling their suitcases towards the queues, many still dressed in Christmas jerseys. The waiting room is already full of passengers waiting for the train to Paris.
“Close the gate,” says one official, “and put up a notice that the next train is delayed”.
Someone in a back office phones through to Paris and Brussels.
“Nous sommes desolées … but don’t send any more Eurostar trains to London today … sorry, sorry!”
On the notice board at St Pancras, the word CANCELLED flares up beside the next three trains.
What can be done?
Everybody pulls out their phones and starts scrolling, looking for alternatives. Some are also checking the clauses of their travel insurance.
Some opt to fly and proceed to an airport for hastily booked short-haul flights. Others look to see if they can rebook on Eurostar for 31 December. Some tourists don’t mind spending an extra day in London or Paris, so long as the insurer will cover the bills. An unlucky few will be missing long-haul flight connections, and their insurance is inadequate for that. Some will be desperately sad to be missing long-planned family events, or a hospital visit to a dying relative. Some are wailing for advice at the customer service desks.
So, what can be done? Someone remembers that Eurostars used to stop at Ashford International Station. Why not let the London-bound trains stop there today, and let the passengers continue their onward journeys by Southeastern trains plus some extra buses? These emptied Eurostars could then be filled with the passengers from St Pancras, who could get there via the SE trains, the Thameslink, or extra buses, and then the train could proceed back through the Channel Tunnel.
“But who is going to book the buses?” asks Tracey at the customer service desk. “I can’t sign any contracts with coach companies. And even if the buses are available – it is the school holidays after all – I bet the drivers are not available at a holiday weekend. Even Thameslink is short of drivers this weekend.”
“And what about border checks?” asks a French official.
“You could go down to Ashford on the same coach and open up there”, someone jokes.
“Non – non – computers do not exist there for border checks, and it’s not in my contract”, announces the official firmly.
“Well, let all the passengers go to Lille and check them out there, just for this day.”
The official shrugs.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Paris, an accountant for AWP P&C SA, the French company that does the travel insurance for Eurostar, is sitting in a café doing some sums.
“All the Eurostar trains are cancelled for the rest of today … hmm … that is about 30,000 passengers. Now if they all claim the maximum allowable – £1,500 – that is £45mn!”
“Ah – hélas.”
He orders a coffee with a croissant, and sits back: “Not my responsibility to save Eurostar money, but I often wonder how they’re coping with that £964mn debt after Covid.”
“I just do the spreadsheets. I can’t suggest what they should do. Maybe we can cut down some of the claims, disallow them … more work for us – maybe I can get that subordinate I have been asking for.”
Somewhere else in Paris, a lawyer for Eurostar is looking up the clauses of the contract Eurostar has with HS1. He can reassure an accountant that a substantial claim can be demanded – from HS1 – for their unusable rail line, which Eurostar pays for. “So that’s okay then – Eurostar will not be out of pocket. Maybe they can even make a profit if they can charge the customers more for tickets to ride tomorrow.”
Somewhere else in the world, maybe New York, or maybe London, the insurers for HS1 are also looking up some clauses and realising the main cost will fall on their firm and their investors. It won’t be clear for some months, as everyone is going to argue about the liabilities, maybe even take it to the courts.
Resilience plans and regulation
Meanwhile, why is the plan to use Ashford Station as a backup impossible to implement quickly? It is because this has never been written into any contract, and Eurostar is under no obligation to have backup plans? But, for other operations in modern life, resilience is a key value written into management plans and contracts. All county councils are required to have flood resilience plans. Highways England is required to have plans for icy roads (grit and the use of farmers volunteering to spread it). The Channel Tunnel Authority (Getlink) is required to adhere to detailed safety regulations to prevent accidents and save lives.
So why can’t the government insist that Eurostar has a backup plan? This would have to be the government that permits Eurostar to use its railways (SNCF in France and Network Rail in England) – or, wait a mo, it is HS1 in England, and that is a private company, with Japanese investors who are about to withdraw some £500mn of their investments.
Meanwhile, I still want to suggest to Eurostar and HS1 that they get together and do their sums for how much it would cost them to keep Ashford International Station in good shape (with contingency staff identified, trained and contracted) for use as a backup station in the next Eurostar emergency like this one.