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Easter Eurostar Train – Nightmare Journey from Hell

BY Boon Koh
Published 5 April 2010

Eurostar have done it again. On another big holiday, they have managed to turn what should be relaxing dream holiday for their passengers into a nightmare journey from hell. More than a hundred passengers who were travelling on a Eurostar train on Easter Sunday, 4th April found their journeys prolonged by more than 4 hours due to electrical failures.

I was on the 8:29pm Eurostar train, travelling back to London Kings Cross St Pancras from a long Easter Weekend break to Brussels, when the train suddenly ground to a halt just after Lille station in France and before the train had entered the Channel tunnel. At first, we thought it was just a minor problem, for example congested train tracks. But after a half hour standstill we started to get worried, especially since it was pitch dark outside and also because the air ventilation system had switched off and the emergency lighting had come on. It was only about 40 minutes later when we got our first update on the situation, that there was an electric failure that was causing the problem. Horror thoughts had begun to race through my head that we would have to sleep on the train overnight.

Over the next half hour to an hour and a half we were given intermittent updates, starting from the cheery “we should be on our way soon” to “we might have to turn back to Lille” and eventually “we are turning back to Lille and you will have to board another train”. Throughout it all, there were no refreshment carts going by, and only after about an hour and a half did a staff member walk through the train to provide more information and answer questions.

Surprisingly, despite the electricity/power failure, the train managed to get itself back to Lille Station, with all the lights and ventilation working. There, we were told to get onto another train across the platform, which had just come from London. However, the organisation was shambolic as it took another 20 minutes for them to open the automatic doors between the platforms, leaving us to stand in the cold, men and women, babies and the elderly alike.

So we eventually switched trains, and those on that train from London or Paris switched to our defective train, which was strange.

After a bit of a wait, we were then on our way again, and this time the train managed to make it all the way back to Kings Cross St Pancras. The original train should have arrived at 9:30pm British Time, but we ended up arriving at the station about three hours later just after midnight. We were told that taxis would be provided free of charge by Eurostar, and that we should collect our cab vouchers at the ticket counter.

There was a mad dash to the ticket counter in St Pancras station, and we were fortunate to be in the middle of the queue, and even then it took us a good half hour to an hour to get to the front of the queue. While I was there, I witnessed a mother with 4 young kids in tow being told to join right at the end of the queue, and several other passengers I spoke to later said that initially there were only two staff members at the ticket counter issuing cab vouchers. While passing the time by taking photos, I was stopped by a man whose badge identified him as H Maouchi, a Eurostar Duty Control Assistant, who seemed more intent on preventing people taking photos rather than helping out with the voucher issuance.

Eurostar finally saw fit to start giving out cans of coke and small packet of crisps at the ticket counter as token compensation. Presumably, they had wanted to make as much money as they could from the bar counters on board the delayed train before showing their apology with a few snack bribes at the end of the night. Still, by the time we got to the counter, there were only a few can of warm soda left (no water or anything else), definitely not enough for the long queue still behind us.

Having queued up for the cab voucher, we faced a further queue for actual London cabs, with the reason given that it was an Easter Sunday and past midnight. Fair enough. But Eurostar staff did know the train would be delayed hours earlier, and they knew how many passengers were on the train, so really they could have organised many more cabs to be at St Pancras. In addition, they seemed to only want to use London Black Cabs and not call in reinforcements from cab services like Addison Lee, which I found extremely puzzling. There were also many cab drivers who pulled up to the taxi rank only to drive off empty as they refused to pick up passengers with a Eurostar voucher.

At the end of the day, we arrived back home at 2am. If the train had run smoothly it should have been four hours earlier at 10pm. I concede that trains breaking down is really just bad luck, but the way the Eurostar staff and management handled the situation was shambolic, even more so because they should have learnt from their experience in December and January and honed their system to deal with emergencies like this.

If Nicolas Petrovic, the CEO of Eurostar is reading this, there’s still a lot of work to do on Eurostar I’m afraid. Offering a free cab ride home, some crummy crisps and a can of warm soda is really the bare minimum. Sure, we were also offered a free return Eurostar journey in the future as compensation for the delay, but what about an option of a full refund and better emergency service next time?

Exclusive photos from the Eurostar train breakdown:

Were you on the train? Have you experienced something similar on Eurostar? Did your insurance cover your onward journey? Leave us a comment below to let us know.

Article written by Boon Koh.

  • Fabrizio

    Dear Boon

    I was on the same trian and I must say that your version of the story up until the account for the taxi queues is a little too exaggerated. I did not have to queue of a taxi so I missed that party of the evening.

    I am of the impression that the information level of information given and the frequency was acceptable. As for the train transfer – i don’t know where you were standing but were i was standing it was shambolic. I thought it was very well organised and immagine that it would have taken a lot longer.

    I am of the view that everything went very smoothly and the staff was very well organised – some could have been a bit friendler and relaxed but all in all they were fine.


  • Chris

    Will start be declaring an interest as an ex-employee…..

    You describe it as an emergency but in fact it was a breakdown – nobody was in danger or injured. Bit of an exaggeration.

    Sounds like the electrical failure was the sort that would prevent the train entering the tunnel. The onboard systems will flag up such a fault and to prevent grinding to a halt in the tunnel it is procedure not to enter.

    Once a train stops it takes a while to sort out the other traffic on the line. The signaller is not going to delay all the other trains in both directions and cause further problems. Whilst it seems a fairly easy thing to do when you are sat in a train on the ground, it is not just a case of turning round and going back the way you came. The traffic stuck behind you needs to be moved out of the way, the traffic coming in the other direction needs to be regulated to allow the traffic behind to share a section of track and the driver also has to shut down the front cab, go the other end of the train and restart the other cab before then waiting for the signaller to allow him to move. As the plan required 2 trains to be in Lille, there would also need to be a plan to ensure this could happen without causing the station to grind to a halt and prevent other trains calling there.

    Swapping trains with a set that has come through the tunnel is normal in these cases – resulting in the swap at Lille. When an inbound train and outbound train are swapped they are required by law to segregate the passengers due to Customs, Immigration and security regulations. This may account for the delay on the platform in Lille.

    When a delayed train arrives, Eurostar contact the taxi companies and request that they attend. Sadly, it is not an obligation for cabbies to respond to this call and on a Sunday night the number that are actually out and about looking for fares are far less than normal – especially on a Bank Holiday. Frustrating as it is, there are not many airlines who in a similar situation would stump up for free cabs – they would just tell you to claim on your travel insurance ! Similarly, if a cabbie does not fancy taking a passenger on a long journey then they may well drive off. It happens in normal life too – “I ain’t going South of the river this time of night” is a response that many will be aware of !

    I don’t think it is fair to name individuals who work for Eurostar in your piece, unless you have contacted them and told them you are naming them publically, given them the right to respond and an assurance that you will publish their response unedited.

  • Vivien

    Agree completely with this article.

    Something to think about is better compensation for passengers who are not based in Europe. These people do not want to fly back to Europe just to use their free Eurostar journey. However, the only alternative offered by Eurostar is a 50% refund of the one-way fare paid from Brussels-London, which is frankly not good enough for a 4 hour delay!

    This incident just reiterates the fact that Eurostar need to do some serious maintenance work, or replace some of their older trains. First the Christmas incident (which they blamed on the “wrong” type of snow, when it was really the fact that they did do the winterization process of their trains properly), and now this!
    If they do not address this issue, the number of Eurostar incidents would keep increasing, which would not help their already deteriorating reputation.