Sunday, 20 December 2009

Down and out from Paris to London...

Guest post by my sister who was trapped on the Eurostar train last night. These are her observations and experiences:


My journey from Paris to London this weekend:
I was supposed to get the ill fated 9.13pm train from Paris on Friday night but I missed it due to train delays from Lyon.
I stayed the night in Paris at a hotel which was provided for by a Eurostar voucher. We were told to return early Saturday morning.
At 5.30 am, I waited by the Eurostar desk at Gare du Nord for the 7.13 am train. The staff at that point knew that a train had been stuck all night and didn't know when a train would be running again. We were repeatedly told to 'go away' and come back the next day 'maybe there would be a train'. Passengers responded with 'Go where?'. Staff had no information.

As soon as Eurostar staff realised the scale of the problem with the trapped trains from Friday night returning to Paris, they said 'No we can't help you now there are too many people'. In short, they got stingy.

We were told to call Eurostar customer services in France, which I did (at 11.11am), but I was told that there was nothing they could do: 'sorry can't help you Madam'. I asked for a hotel voucher for the Saturday night or until a train was available but staff now denied that they could give out hotel vouchers. I knew this was untrue as I had been given one for the Friday night. I told him that I knew that the vouchers were in the office, he replied 'I'm sorry Madam, thank you for your call'. I quickly asked for his name, he reluctantly replied 'Dominic' but refused to give me his last name. The name 'Dominic' sounded made up as he sniggered.
The only time any action happened was about 11.30 am when the passengers from the original train stuck in the tunnel (on Friday night) were arriving back in Paris. Suddenly the French Eurostar CEO and variety of assistants turned up to speak to the French press. They stationed a box of croissants next to them as passengers came out, a last minute effort at appearing to look after the passengers. As soon as the press left, Eurostar management disappeared again.
I waited in Paris until I managed to get on the 3.30pm train. It stayed on the platform for an hour while we were waiting for a train driver to turn up.
A few brief details about the journey: at one point we were going through the tunnel, I could suddenly smell burning in the carriage, the air was 'mistier'. As I walked up and down to see where the smell was coming from, an announcement came 'the engine power had gone' and 'the driver was letting the train freewheel to get out of the tunnel'.
The British passengers had a gallows humour throughout this: joking that it was 'day two in the Eurotunnel house and that they wanted to go to the diary room' and laughing when the train manager spoke in 'allo, 'allo English over the public address system saying 've are going to turn ze lightning off' (meaning the lights).
I kept wondering when Shelley Winters(Poseidon Adventure) or Fred Astaire(Towering Inferno) were going to pop up and do a cameo role.
Once through the tunnel, we then remained stuck, travelling a few metres then stopping, not far from Folkstone for approximately seven hours. It was frustrating watching other trains go past.

The passengers were patient until it had just been going on too long. We had been without lights, food, water, heating and communication. The doors were locked. There seemed to be no manual override to open the doors once the electricity had failed.
Eventually the train managed to get towards Ebbsfleet (a major stop where some people had left their cars) but the train manager refused to stop there and wouldn't explain why other than 'health and safety'. That is when passengers started to get very angry. Some of these people had been stuck on the train the night before, so it was their second night in this situation.

The atmosphere turned nastier when a woman apparently saw the train staff in a carriage taking pictures of themselves and also of passengers. Her 12 year old daughter took pictures of the staff doing this and they grabbed the camera from her. This is when we heard fighting in the carriage next door.
One of the problems was that there were no native English speaking staff on the train. We were reliant on the translation skills of the rather youthful French staff, who did their best but had no experience or training to deal with the situation.
A couple of passengers came through and said that the train driver, a man, was weeping in a carriage.

I also noticed that as we got out of the train at St Pancras at around 12.30 am, no Eurostar staff were present. Cases of water and boxes of croissants and crisps had been dumped, not even handed out, for weary passengers to have in their hands ready for the waiting media.
Passengers were given slips to get a taxi and told to go outside. (Only 2 staff handing these out for 700 passengers). When passengers got outside and tried to hail black cabs, they refused to take the fare because the vouchers were only for radio taxis.
There was no information for passengers stranded in London that night: no hotel information, no hotel vouchers, no coaches laid on. When you phoned up the British Eurostar customer care number there was only an answerphone message about booking tickets over the Christmas period. The impression I had was that Eurostar were trying to deal with this at a minimum of expense.

The model Claudia Schiffer was apparently treated very differently. She was whisked away in a taxi.


In conclusion yes, nobody died, but I generally got the sense that Eurostar were not interested in spending the money to communicate and help the passengers going through this ordeal.


Safety issues.

When we were left in the dark several times for several hours due to the train having no power this actually meant that:

1. There wasn’t any backup emergency electricity to light anything.
2. The power failure meant that we were trapped in the train and the electric doors were sealed shut. No manual override.
3. Evacuation: no luminous signs to indicate any emergency exits/windows to help us to break out. (Every pub/club has to have this by law... why doesn’t a sealed high speed train?)
4. We wouldn’t have been able to find our way out in a fire/smoke situation or a derailment. In the event of a problem, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have not been able to evacuate quickly and would have died through asphyxiation in the panic and mayhem.
5. The Emergency Windows are marked as such ONLY on the outside of the train,(reading letters backwards in panic/chaos is hard) so the passengers on the inside could not tell which ones were the windows that could have been smashed with a hammer in case of evacuation. Many signs are masked by handles. They were also written in small letters.
6. The power failure meant that the Train Manager could not make any public address announcements. There are no battery loud-hailers on board.
7. None of the staff have any basic medical training or are designated as such. A pregnant woman fainted. Passengers were asked if they were medics. A paramedic who volunteered, went to her aid but noticed that although the staff surrounded her - not one of them had thought to bring the medical kit. THEY HAVE NO TRAINING TO COPE WITH INCIDENTS. I found the young staff as polite as they could be in this ordeal but they didn’t know what to do. At times the staff hid in another carriage as they couldn’t cope or make decisions for themselves and at times asked us passengers to pass on information hoping it might makes it way down 17 packed carriages.
8. Staff did not appear to have emergency torches.
9. As a society, we have had many disasters such the Moorgate tube crash, the Reading train crash… the sinking of the Marchioness boat, Hillsboro… the list goes on. Why doesn’t Eurostar/Eurotunnel have to conform to basic Health and Safety measures?


MsMarmitelover: one of the reasons I asked my sister to post her account here is because she put the above list on safety on the Eurostar Facebook page and it was removed. She has posted it again on Facebook and it remains for the time being.

23 comments:

  1. Gosh, what a nightmare and a relief that no-one was killed or seriously injured. Lets hope lessons are learnt from this, but as with other disasters, lessons often never are. I hope any mental scares are soon healed. May your sister and all the other passengers have a well deserved Merriest of Christmases.

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  2. A graphic and horrific story. I'm so glad you're OK but you're right - it does raise major safety issues and is a total public relations disaster for Eurostar.

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  3. I cannot travel on trains/tubes merely because they keep stopping between stations
    and do not say why !

    I could hazard a guess, about how I would react to being trapped in a locked train
    but must not in case I can't stop crying from the thought of it !

    you have my sympathies !

    THIS COMPANY MUST BE STOPPED !

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  4. I agree that Eurostar should be made to take the safety points very seriously...but they currently only seem interested in why the snow is causing a problem. Ultimately, we need high speed rail companies instead of taking the plane. Its possibly because of our plane journeys that we have these extreme weather conditions anyway. Its ironic that this weather happened as the Copenhagen summit failed. Shame on those countries that wont try to help the environment. But also shame on us for buying their cheap goods.

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  5. This is a repeat performance of the incidents in Brussels on 11/12 September 2008 after the fire last year, with the only difference that your people attempted to lynch the crew, ours the booking staff so they set attack dogs on us.

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  6. Excellent first-hand commentary. Glad to read that your sister AND the rest of the passengers survived, but that sort of situation held a strong potential for panic attacks and/or heart attacks and the onset of early labour in pregnant women. Frankly, it is a miracle that no one died from the stress of knowing that they could not get out of those sealed carriages. And it is less than comforting to know that the most basic rules of health and safety are not adhered to on those trains. The rudeness exhibited to the arriving passengers regarding food and hotel vouchers, transport upon arrival, and assistance in general is simply appalling! Public relations nightmares aside, this will certainly linger in people's memory and is likely to cause a rise in passenger numbers on the el-cheapo airlines again and the slower but perhaps safer channel ferries.

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  7. whilst I agree it would have not been comfortable and frightening, to call it horrific and a disaster is taking it too far, Im sure the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan would prefer to be stuck there in a train station or train than where they are

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  8. Lost for words after reading this. I was pretty enthousiastic about Eurostar until I read this. Back to Cityjet for me until further notice !

    It is incredible what you lived through. We can only repost as much as possible to get this post the attention it deserves. Hopefully something will change then.

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  9. This is such an interesting post.
    I'm glad you came out of it relatively unscathed!I used to work in their London office and I got he impression that in many cases,the customers were seen as a bit of an inconvenience. The French side especially seemed to dislike passengers.This was a few years ago and I am so disappointed to see that this attitude prevails. Your description of your phone call with 'Dominic' made me feel so frustrated for you. What awful customer service.
    This is a huge PR disaster for Eurostar. Such a pity as the train is fabulous and the service(when it works), is so good.
    The biggest problem was not the weather, but their attitude to the passengers.

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  10. Important that she documented and shared it all. Having just come back from Brussels, before the issues, this was too close a call. You sister held up brave, as being stranded underground for all that time would be a terrifying experience.

    Friend had a 16 hour journey back from Copenhagen with the Eurostar issues. Rough time to face all this with the holiday travel.

    So glad everyone came out OK and got home safe.

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  11. MsMarmitelover: I don't recall the words horrific or disaster being used.
    I think the real issue is whether in a real disaster such as a fire, are the correct safety measures in place?

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  12. Blimey, what a palarva! It's a shame Nick Griffin wasn't on board! :-) Mind you he'd probably get the Claudia Schiffer treatment.

    That really was a terrible example of risk management and damage control. If that happened in my hospital the Head Porter and Trust Director's hesds would both roll. I hope your sister gets compensation, ML. Maybe she could spend the money by taking all MsMarmiteLover blog followers out for dinner in Paris... but do us a favour, could we take the ferry?

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  13. I'll have to differ with the first Anonymous post. This obsession with warfare and the military is becoming a virtual religion. There are plenty of situations worse than fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trawlermen and offshore oil rig workers are in equal danger (at least). But they, like people stuck in trains underground, don't get the compensating bonus of "HERO" headlines in the papers glamourizing and glorifying them.

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  14. The people on that train also did not sign on for that kind of an experience, soldiers do.

    Your sister's account left me feeling claustrophobic and angry. Communication and some expression of accountability would have been a good first step to take in that situation. Are the staff not trained for such things?

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  15. Wow, that sounds horrid... Thanks for posting though. Good to know what was really going on!

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  16. i just made it out of england before they closed the crossing down

    merry xmas from germany!

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  17. i just made it out of england before they closed the crossing down

    merry xmas from germany!

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  18. Just posted a link to this on Twitter with suggestions for all to Retweet. Public pressure for Eurostar to be responsible, esp. as regards those very serious potential safety issues, might be needed for them to do the right thing. Stupid penny-pinching corporate bureaucrats make me sick.

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  19. Before you post this sort of accusations about safety issues and spread it accross the web, you should maybe check the facts and stop assuming....

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  20. Blimey, impotent whining obviously runs in your family.

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  21. I'm really hugely disappointed to read about the catalogue of unacceptable behaviour, both in terms of H&S and in terms of customer service, from a company I had previously thought well of.

    I wonder if you can get any media interest in this as we didn't really see reports on the news about this side of the events.

    Just, as has been said, Eurostar pontificating about the reasons for the train failures.

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  22. i never understand why people post negative and essentially irrelevant, comments, clearly too much time on their hands. aaaanyway. really feel for your siter, what a bloody nightmare and the area round the station is not the most salubrious of places.
    my friend and i had the misfortune to be stranded after a day trip to paris due to the incompetence of eurostar and had to fight tooth and nail for compensation which when finally received was less than the costs of my hotel and expenses...obviously an intended insult.
    as a result would actually choose Bryanair over eurostar which is really saying something...

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I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)