Eurostar made the headlines for all the wrong reasons on the 19th of December after a number of trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel and passengers were stuck for hours. Newspapers and broadcast media were full of eye-witness accounts from disgruntled passengers complaining of long delays before an evacuation took place and a lack of communication from Eurostar staff.
First and foremost this incident emphasises the need for effective communication in a crisis. In this incident that includes: communication within Eurostar; communication between Eurostar and Eurotunnel and, most crucially, communication between Eurostar and passengers – both those trapped in the Tunnel and those waiting to travel. It is not yet clear where and why the flow of information broke down but it is a recurring theme in passenger criticisms that Eurostar staff were unable to give them accurate and timely information about the situation.
Other passengers have questioned why, after the initial breakdown, more trains were allowed to enter the Tunnel. Without knowing any details of what happened in this specific incident, it is impossible to say if this criticism is justified but it does highlight an important general point: that is the difficulty that organisations have in recognising when they are facing a crisis and need to take decisive action. In retrospect it is easy to say that Eurostar should have stopped trains entering the Tunnel as soon as the first train broke down but that is with the considerable benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The early stages of any crisis are very difficult and confusing and this is where simple, flexible plans and staff who have been thoroughly trained to execute them pay real dividends.
Finally, the incident illustrates once again how very improbable events keep happening: Eurostar spokespeople have repeatedly emphasised how nothing like this has ever happened before. The lesson here is not that we need to plan for every possible unlikely event – that is clearly impossible – but rather that our plans and people should be equipped to deal with the unexpected.
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