First hand account of Eurotunnel evacuation 14 July 2014

TunnelTalk reports an eye-witness account

Evacuation of an underground facility is often considered by the general public as one of the most traumatic of procedures. It is a procedure that requires particular organization and management training and careful consideration when designing modern underground facilities.

Freight Shuttles ready for the subsea journey
Freight Shuttles ready for the subsea journey

Over the years there have been major disasters in public underground facilities. These have involved fires, crashes of trains or vehicles, and acts of terror and mass devastation in the underground environment. The enquiries in the aftermath of these events always include the effectiveness or deficiencies in the response by both the general public and the operators.

Since start of its services through the undersea fixed link railway between the UK and France in 1994, Eurotunnel, has had to respond to two major fire incidents on the roll-on/roll-off freight shuttles that carry trucks through the tunnel and various breakdown incidents on trains that use the tunnel, including the Eurostar high-speed passenger train services between London, Paris and Brussels.

Last week, in early July 2014, it was the operating failure of a car and passenger Shuttle train that required evacuation while still in the tunnel.

Eurotunnel car passenger Shuttle being loaded
Eurotunnel car and passenger Shuttle being loaded

Unlike the freight Shuttles, on which the drivers, crew and any truck passengers leave their truck cabs and journey through the tunnel between the terminals at Folkestone and Coquelles in a passenger carriage, on the car Shuttles, the drivers and all passengers stay with, and ride in, their vehicles.

Each car Shuttle train comprises two separate halves, or rakes. One has a single deck for coaches, minibuses and caravans. The other transports cars and motorcycles on a double deck configuration. A complete passenger Shuttle comprises 24 carriages and can carry 12 buses or coaches and 120 cars. With no fare limit to the number of passengers in each vehicle there can be up to nine people and more per vehicle. Once the train is loaded, each carriage is isolated from the next by a pressure and fire proof door. The Eurotunnel crew rides in the carriages with the cars and their passengers.

On the morning of 8 July, a loaded car Shuttle heading from Folkestone to Coquelles came to a halt in the interval 2 section of the north running tunnel, due to an overhead catenary fault. Eurotunnel reported that, after inspection it was decided that the train could not easily proceed under its own power and that a reported 394 passengers on the disabled Shuttle needed to be evacuated to the parallel interval 1 section of the south running tunnel, via the central service tunnel, and into another car Shuttle for transfer to the terminal in Coquelles where they would be reunited with their vehicles.

Inside a passenger Shuttle
Inside a passenger Shuttle

First hand account
On the disabled Shuttle train was a TunnelTalk reader and advertiser, Nod Clarke-Hackston, International Sales Manager of VMT GmbH, who was on a journey from his UK home to a meeting at the VMT head office in Germany and via the Eurotunnel Channel crossing. With his first hand knowledge and experience of the incident, TunnelTalk conducted a question and answer interview that revealed much about the preparedness of Eurotunnel to manage the incident and of the general public to react to the situation.

How did Euortunnel management/staff handle the incident?
“I thought they were very competent. As soon as I heard the noise on the roof of the Shuttle, I was aware that something had happened. The Eurotunnel crew-member lady in charge of our section of the Shuttle - I was in carriage 26 on the upper deck - was quick to assure everyone. She spoke to those in each vehicle in turn to explain what was happening and in as far as the information she was receiving. The train driver also explained over the intercom system what had happened. Each time these staff members receive more information they passed it onto the passengers.

“Bottled water was quickly distributed by the Eurotunnel staff. This is obviously kept on board for such situations. Several of the UK border patrol staff who were going to work in Calais were assisting in the distribution of the water. With the loss of power it meant that the toilets on each carriage did not function, but they do carry some portaloos just in case!! This was all explained to the passengers.

“It was also explained that because of this type of problem, a decision was made some time ago that, despite there being no risk to life or potential safety problem, Eurotunnel managers would not leave passengers in trains in the tunnel for more than about four hours.”

Did you all get sufficient information as passengers?
“More would have been useful. This would have enabled the passengers with long distances to travel, and with hotel bookings etc, to make plans earlier. In total the delay was approximately 11 hours. I therefore arrived at my hotel in Germany at 00:15am instead of the estimated 13:30pm.”

You were all with your vehicles on the Shuttle and you had to leave them. How did that feel about that? How did you find them again when the train arrived at the Coquelles terminal?
“We were told to remember the carriage number we were in and which deck we were on so that finding our vehicle would be easier when the disabled train arrived.”

Was there any confusion or panic?
“No confusion, no panic. Everyone was very calm about the whole incident. It was only later on in the afternoon that a few people started to get annoyed as the time to recover the failed train dragged on and on.”

How was the evacuation into the service tunnel and onto the south running tunnel passenger Shuttle train handled?
“When the decision to evacuate the Shuttle was taken, the staff explained what was to take place. We were directed towards the section of the train that was closest to one of the cross-passages. In my case this was forwards of my carriage. We were told to collect any valuables and to lock our vehicles. We then walked to the exit point on the train. The Eurotunnel staff made sure everyone was out of the Shuttle.

Transfer passengers inside the service tunnel
Transfer passengers inside the service tunnel
Photo by Nod Clarke-Hackston

“When we exited the Shuttle there was a short walk along the tunnel until we reached the cross-passage. By coincidence, the couple in the vehicle behind me were discussing the cross passage doors, as he had worked on the tunnel's construction and had installed the doors that we used.

“Once through the cross passage doors and into the service tunnel we were all given a ‘goody’ bag containing more water, a flash light, a fan, a notebook and pen, and a pack of playing cards.

“In the service tunnel to meet us were the UK fire service, the French fire service, the UK police and more Eurotunnel staff, plus there were several engineers seen moving around the tunnels. We had a shortish wait until a passenger Shuttle train from France stopped for us to board for the journey on to Calais. It was just like the one we had been on, only without the vehicles and with everyone standing up in the shuttle.

How long did the process of evacuation take?
“It took under an hour in total, from being told to get off the disabled train and onto the new train and to the point of that new train moving off towards the terminal in France. We spent between 20 and 30 minutes in the central service tunnel where a tape installed along the centre of the roadway enabled the emergency teams to travel easily along the tunnel to different cross-passage access points to the disabled train.”

Were there many children/families in the crowd?
There were several young families, plus four dogs and one cat! There was also one man who has difficulty in walking. It seemed to be no problem when in his vehicle, but for the evacuation process, it appeared that Eurotunnel has several specially designed narrow wheelchairs for use in this type of situation. These enable a Eurotunnel staff member to manage the wheelchair along the narrow walkways on either side of the vehicles on the Shuttle, and to negotiate getting off the train into the running tunnel, into the service tunnel and back onto the relief Shuttle, and then again from that Shuttle and onto the coaches that took us from the train platform to the terminal building.”

Did Eurotunnel explain why there was such a long time between getting you all off the disabled Shuttle and reconnected to your vehicles?
“A team of Eurotunnel staff was dispatched from their offices and normal jobs to deal with the passengers. They were all well briefed in handling the passengers and dealing with this type of situation. They were limited in the amount of information they were receiving from the train being recovered. Initially we were told the train would be out by about 13:30pm, then the time kept slipping. We were told that the train was finally moving and it would take 30 minutes or so to get it out of the tunnel but it kept stopping. The reasons for this were not given.

Eventually the train was recovered but at a considerably slower speed on movement than everyone was expecting. It would be interesting to find out the reason for this.”

Would you say that Eurotunnel managed the incident well or poorly?
“Generally well handled.”

What was your overall impression of the management of the incident?
“After some time waiting in the terminal and having various updates from the staff liaising with the passengers, the Commercial Director personally came to update the passengers. She was able to explain, in a bit more detail, what was happening and the realistically expected time it would take for the recovered train to arrive at the platform and how long from that point it would take for us to be on the motorway and resuming our journeys. If she had had this information sooner, and been able to pass it on, those few people who were getting annoyed would have been more understanding.”

Would the incident put you off taking the Shuttle?

What would you say would or could have been managed better?
“It was a relatively minor incident - one broken down train. No serious safety issues.

The overall response was for a major incident, which thankfully was not the case on Monday.

The only improvement would be for better updates between the Eurotunnel engineers dealing with the problem and the Eurotunnel staff handling the passengers.”

In a statement by Eurotunnel after the incident, Customer Experience Director, Yves Szrama, apologised to customers for the disruption of the events and explained that “safety of passengers is always our first concern. Once that is assured, we want them to be comfortable, well informed and well looked after. The recent installation of mobile telephone services inside the tunnel helped us keep our customers informed during the incident.”

Clarke-Hackston confirmed that “ironically, I had better communications in the tunnel than in Calais. For some reason I could not get a mobile phone signal when I was at the terminal and my mobile phone could not link to the free wifi at the terminal. The in-tunnel service was very good.”

Transfer passengers inside the central service tunnel
Route of the Eurotunnel freight and passenger Shuttles between terminals at Folkstone, UK and Coquelles, France

A follow up statement explained that, “following Eurotunnel’s well-rehearsed safety procedures,” customers were transferred to the Eurotunnel terminal in France where “customer services staff helped them with their onward travel arrangements.”

Repairs were required to 800m of the overhead catenary power supply as a result of the failure. The incident Shuttle train, Eurotunnel explained, was removed from the tunnel by a diesel locomotive and brought to the platform in France where customers were reunited with their vehicles to continue their journeys.

Once the incident Shuttle was removed, a Eurotunnel works train entered the tunnel and trained technicians began work to repair the damage to the catenary and its supports. This work took nearly 24 hours and was completed by the following morning. Eurotunnel stated that although the thorough inspection of the tunnel, during and after the incident, generated delays, it was essential to ensure the highest levels of safety for its customers.

Throughout the incident and the repairs, the Channel Tunnel remained open and operating in single line working mode, with train departures being sent alternately through the single line section opposite to the incident section.

“Even with a reduced service,” reported Eurotunnel, “traffic levels remained high with 4,860 passenger vehicles and 2,284 trucks, 51 Eurostar and six freight trains transported through the tunnel on the incident Monday.”

Eurotunnel said that it invests about €110 million each year in maintaining and improving its infrastructure and training its staff to ensure the total safety and comfort of its customers.

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