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Channel Tunnel

Volume 758: debated on Thursday 22 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to minimise rail passenger disruption caused by the recent closure of the Channel Tunnel.

My Lords, we are closely monitoring the situation, and we expect Eurostar to help passengers to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Eurostar filled trains up to the maximum to help to resolve the backlog, and provided beverages on board services and in the queues. Eurostar also paid for hotels, taxis and food for some passengers. The repair works are anticipated to take two days. Eurostar is running a full service with delays of around two hours.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, having spent many years building the tunnel. Eurostar may be running a full service. I came in this morning only two hours late. The tunnel is still partially closed and it has been closed for five days now. Coincidentally, at the same time, our latest political party, led by the Pub Landlord, has suggested that we should brick up the Channel Tunnel. Whether or not that is a good idea, the tunnel should be open; it is a major piece of infrastructure. Will the Minister ask the intergovernmental commission on an urgent basis to produce a report on the passenger disruption, just like at King’s Cross, the infrastructure failure and, most important, the cause of the fire—it is the fourth fire caused by a lorry fire—and recommend changes to the safety regime?

My Lords, I shall address the situation of the passengers on the train and the assistance given to them. All passengers and staff were evacuated from the train to a place of safety in good time, with no injuries or stress. As I said, most passengers were offered tea, coffee, beverages and, in some cases, hotel and train costs. In a situation like this, the first priority is always to ensure that Eurostar is running a safe service. Of course, there are inevitable delays because of the fire damage in the tunnel. It is clear that only one of the tunnels, the southbound tunnel, was affected in this incident.

My Lords, there have been four fires—actually, I think it is five—affecting lorries being taken through the tunnel on shuttle carriages going from France to England. Those carriages have lattice sides. That means that when they are going forward, any fire or possibility of fire swiftly generates a dangerous fire that causes immense damage and destruction. This would be obviated if the wagons carrying the lorries were enclosed, like those for cars, with built-in fire-extinguishing apparatus. Will he take this to the safety authority responsible for the Channel Tunnel to get something done before we have an even more serious fire and fatalities?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that there have been previous fires. The relevant authorities are constantly reviewing how to limit this risk; in this instance, the situation was helped by the new sprinklers that were installed as a result of the previous situation. This has considerably reduced the amount of time for which the tunnel has been closed. The use of enclosed lorries is an area that has been looked into in the past but, frankly, it would be commercial suicide for the freight companies to have enclosed lorries. The whole purpose of this is to make sure that goods are transported from one end to the other as quickly and economically as possible.

My Lords, surely we should be measuring the temperature as these trucks go into the tunnel. One should easily be able to do that because of the open structure. It is likely that the temperature was rising in this case, but that information was not available on a screen to the people operating the tunnel. That would be quite economical and should certainly be instituted.

I take the noble Lord’s point but there is an ongoing investigation into this incident and I am sure that we will learn our lessons about what actually went wrong. It should be borne in mind that this incident happened on the French side of the tunnel, not ours.

Because it happened on the other side, the onus is on the French authorities to work with us. It is easier for them to investigate the cause of the fire than for us. However, our own fire authority will of course be working with those authorities to discover the cause of the fire. We will learn some lessons from this and see what further improvements we can make to ensure that we limit fires in future.

My Lords, while I regret the inconvenience and disruption to the passengers caused by the fire, will my noble friend say a word of thanks and appreciation to the staff who so efficiently got everyone out without any damage or distress?

Yes, my Lords. In fact, I commend all the Eurotunnel staff, who worked very hard. A number of volunteers also came forward at King’s Cross to help passengers, who were served with teas, coffees and beverages and given whatever assistance they could be given. It was regrettable and unfortunate for a large number of passengers that their journeys were delayed. Having said that, this incident was unexpected and they were very understanding about the delay to their journeys.

Does my noble friend accept that the prospect of new rolling stock might be one way in which to deal with some of these problems? I declare an interest as a frequent user of the shuttle service, which normally works extremely well and efficiently, not just in the summer but throughout the year.

My Lords, I take the point about new rolling stock. I am quite aware of the new rolling stock that our train operating companies in the UK will be introducing. This is a private company and, frankly, I am not briefed on whether new rolling stock has been ordered for Eurotunnel and Eurostar.

My Lords, safety regulation is a key responsibility of the binational, British and French, Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission, which has as its statutory independent safety advisory body the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority. The Secretary of State appoints the heads of the British delegations to the intergovernmental commission and the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, so this issue is not just related to the incident happening on the French side of the tunnel. Bearing in mind that fire is a tunnel’s biggest enemy, and that there have previously been fires in 1996, 2006 and 2008 in the Channel Tunnel, are the Government still satisfied with the safety arrangements and procedures for the carrying of lorries and their loads by rail through the tunnel—yes or no?

My Lords, I will take the safety aspect. The Channel Tunnel Safety Authority will be looking into the problems last weekend and at whether Eurotunnel needs to make further improvements. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch is also making preliminary inquiries in conjunction with its French counterpart, BEA-TT. We will wait for the report to come out to see what further things we can do. It is important that it is safe to travel, and it is of equal gain to both countries that our lorries travel from one end to the other.

My Lords, for many people the major disruption of the Channel Tunnel is that, despite having been able to use it for 10 years now, no one can take a direct service to either Brussels or Amsterdam or anywhere outside France. I do not know whether this is because of competition restrictions on the other side of the channel or difficulties with passport control, but can we please get this fixed ?

That is for the French Government to comment on. However, I will certainly take it to the department and will write to the noble Lord about what more the French could do to make travelling from Paris easier.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the British people tend to be sailors rather than troglodytes and that we should encourage a strong cross-channel ferry sector?

On at least two occasions, the Minister has pointed in the direction of France. In the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, may I ask him to confirm that there was no culpability on behalf of the European Union?

My Lords, since the questions are ranging fairly widely on this topic, what progress are Her Majesty’s Government making on turning Stratford International station into a genuinely international station where services through the Channel Tunnel actually stop?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s question is not that on the Order Paper, but I will certainly investigate and come back to him.