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Railways: Eurostar

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking in conjunction with the Government of France to investigate the delays in rescuing passengers in Eurostar trains which broke down in the Channel Tunnel on 18 and 19 December 2009.

My Lords, the Government have approved the terms of reference of an independent review, to be chaired jointly by Christopher Garnett and Claude Gressier, to report directly to UK and French Ministers in parallel with Eurostar.

The review will consider all aspects of the Eurostar service disruption, including the breakdowns in the tunnel, contingency planning, and communication with passengers. We expect the review to publish its findings around the end of January and the Secretary of State will make a Statement to Parliament at this point.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that the original concession agreement between Eurotunnel and the Government required the company to remove all passengers in a stricken train within 30 minutes? That is rather different from the 17 hours that thousands of passengers suffered with no food, water, light or communication. What comfort can he give the House, especially at this time of snow—this always seems to happen when it is snowing—that the same kind of incident will not happen again?

My Lords, it would be a foolish person who said that such a thing could never happen again. All I can say on that point is that the precise mechanical problem which caused the five trains to break down has now been corrected and services are operating, albeit with a reduced service in the present very bad weather. The question that my noble friend raises about the evacuation time is very important and is one which we shall encourage the intergovernmental commission, the organisation responsible for safety in the Channel Tunnel, to consider. This is a joint UK/French body and is the regulator for the Channel Tunnel. Following the events that occurred just before Christmas, the IGC issued a statement that the evacuation procedures put into operation on 18 and 19 December had been the subject of joint planning between railway undertakings and Eurotunnel before being submitted to the IGC for agreement and approval, and that they were more particularly adapted to fire risk. That, I think, is the reason for the 30-minute figure to which my noble friend referred. These matters will need to be looked at and will also need to be considered by the independent inquiry to which I referred.

The real essence of this is to not refer the matter to some independent commission that will report in so many years’ time. Will the Minister ask his colleague, the Secretary of State, to tell us what procedures are going to be put in place within a very short time and rehearsed regularly so that they are robust and not forgotten by the staff?

The independent inquiry is not going to take a year to report. We have instructed it to give us the report by the end of January, and there will then be a Statement to Parliament immediately afterwards. It is much more sensible to look at these matters properly and to consider the experiences of the passengers who were affected. We are encouraging people who were affected on the five Eurostar trains to write in to the inquiry. E-mail details are available on the website, so that all the experiences that they suffered can be properly examined. As a result of that we can have a method of operation, post the end of January, which will meet the requirements of the noble Lord.

My Lords, as someone who was stuck in the Channel Tunnel—not on this occasion, but previously, for two hours—I endorse the fact that there is no communication when things go wrong. The Minister has mentioned this, but I ask that the inquiry addresses communication between the surface and the train driver, between the train driver and the train manager and then between the train manager and the passengers. The last is usually a disaster, but it seems as if there may be some gaps in the others. We need to ensure that that aspect is fully covered.

I can give the noble Baroness exactly that assurance. She has raised one of the most important and disturbing aspects of this whole unhappy story—the fact that passengers on the train were not being informed of what was going on. It is possible for the train driver to be kept informed from the Eurotunnel control. The inquiry is looking at why it was not then possible for the passengers to be kept in the picture. I appreciate what the noble Baroness has said. She may even wish to write to the inquiry, to Mr Garnett, and give her own experience of her previous delay.

My Lords, will it be within the remit of the independent commission to find whether or not Eurostar was grossly negligent on this occasion?

I suspect the noble Lord is referring to a legal liability. I understand that the independent inquiry is concerned with what went wrong, and what needs to be done to put it right. It is not concerned with legal liability at this stage. However, if I am wrong about, I will write to the noble Lord and correct myself.

Was my noble friend assuring us in his previous reply that the operational interface between Eurotunnel and Eurostar is part of the scope of the inquiry?

I can give my noble friend that assurance. One aspect of this saga that surprised us was the Eurotunnel statement that was issued, perhaps in some haste, immediately after the series of incidents took place. In that statement, it appeared to contradict the evidence that it had already given to the IGC about safety issues. The interface between Eurotunnel and Eurostar is extremely important and it is something that is at the heart of the independent inquiry that Mr Gressier and Mr Garnett are conducting.