I already commented yesterday on what I think are the causes of Eurostar communication failure, which have made everything more difficult than necessary for all impacted passengers and families during the tunnel crisis.
With today’s information I can focus more specifically on a communication gap between Eurostar and Eurotunnel, the company operating the Channel tunnel.
What we’ve heard today
As some strained passengers already commented right after the emergency, it seems like Eurotunnel staff have been “more helpful” than Eurostar staff.
Actually, it was the (UK) Eurotunnel staff who did a sterling job trying to help stranded people – Eurostar types were pretty thin on the ground (We were there – for 14 hours – and had a long chat with UK Eurotunnel staff so I know). @hurrymurray
In this morning BBC’s interview, we saw some fingerpointing when Eurostar chief executive declared that [@ 01:10]
…it’s actually Eurotunnel who are in charge of everything in the tunnel on their infrastructure in the tunnel who arranges the evacuations
And later today I came across this unbelievable press release from Eurotunnel (PDF) which is just as unreal as everything else. I would be even tempted to say it’s a scam. The title: “EUROTUNNEL RESCUES EUROSTAR“.
The best snippets from the Eurotunnel press release:
These incidents were in no way due to the Tunnel infrastructure.
Comment: this is in the 1st paragraph. This is called “first of all cover your back”.
Towed 2 Eurostars to St Pancras as Eurostar did not have the means to do so themselves
Comment: frontal finger pointing to Eurostar. This doesn’t show any cooperation at all. Note the generic term used: “Eurostar did not…” showing personal disrespect for the company as a whole, instead of an objective technical assessment such as “Eurostar trains did not…“.
Pascal Sainson, Eurotunnel Operations Director, commented: “In very difficult conditions
Eurotunnel made the decision to assist the Eurostar trains and their passengers….”
Comment 1: “made the decision to assist” – a decision was needed to assist? It should be a moral duty. And if previous statements are true, it is even Eurotunnel’s own responsibility and obligation!
Comment 2: “to assist the trains AND the passengers” – with 2000 people stuck in an underwater tunnel in cold, darkness and without food who cares about the trains?
Eurotunnel locomotives and Shuttles are prepared and maintained so that they are not affected by rapid temperature changes.
Comment 1: not only this is another direct frontal attack to Eurostar, but also a useless statement because Eurotunnel’s locomotives and Shuttles don’t run at 186 mph/300 kmh so they don’t have to be prepared for such a scenario.
Comment 2: this statement implies that the rapid temperature change has been the technical cause for the incident. A professional would have waited for the technical investigation to be completed by the relevant experts before confirming this theory.
Overall comment: I totally fail to see the goal of such a release. What’s the point of celebrating at Eurotunnel against the failure of their twin partner Eurostar? Is this to preemptively cover someone’s back? Is it to demonstrate superior facts knowledge or better public relations skills?
What does this tell me about the communication failure
The above are symptoms of a deeply rooted organisational divide. These guys must have had fight after fight for years over who was responsible for what. There must be an “Us vs Them” syndrome of proportions we cannot even imagine. There must be very strict communication firewalls between the 2 bodies. Teams supposed to work hand in hand on the ground are probably restrained from talking freely to each other. There must be very clear territorial limits of responsibility marked with red lines on the ground.
I can just guess what this meant during the crisis [note: this is my pure speculation and I don’t have any facts to prove this].
- Eurostar staff inside the trains was probably not allowed to do and say anything at all. They have probably been waiting for information from Eurostar HQ, which was in turn waiting for information from Eurotunnel HQ.
- Eurotunnel staff have executed the emergency operations, and they probably have the instructions to report to central without leaking any information – even to Eurostar staff.
- Eurotunnel HQ has probably taken the time to verify every detail and ensure control before communicating to Eurostar.
- Eurotunnel is not a consumer facing company. Hence I am not sure if they have any marketing, customer service or consumer focused PR agency. I am not sure if they have any procedure for external communication at all. [There is an @eurotunnel Twitter account but it seems never been used].
- This is probably a stretch, but if Eurotunnel zone of responsibility stops just outside the tunnel I wonder if this explains the reports from passengers that they had to wait again for hours once outside the tunnel for someone to come and pick them up.
I want to make clear again that the crisis was extremely tough and could have had serious consequences, so I am happy that whatever has been done has worked and allowed everyone to return home safe. Some people from whatever organisation have indeed worked very hard and have to be praised.
The communication and PR problems after all are secondary. But the communication failure has made everything worst and created unnecessary conflictual situations during and after the emergency. There could have been injuries due to stress and panic for some, or lack of water and food for others. Once we look into this communication failure, I come to the conclusion that the root causes are to be found within the internal culture created by both Eurostar and Eurotunnel organisations.
In light of this, both Eurostar and Eurotunnel management should to be held equally responsible for having created a potential trap for their common passengers.
UPDATE 21 DEC 2009
I have watched this phone interview with Jacques Gounon, Eurotunnel CEO (in French on LCI TV).
He also replays the Eurotunnel good Samaritan story by calling Eurotunnel “St Bernards” (Wikipedia: the St. Bernard Dog is a very large breed of dog, a working dog from the Swiss Alps, originally bred for rescue). At least he also praises Eurostar staff.
His point is that the emergency procedures worked well and everyone is safe, and I agree.
I still think that with such a corporate cultural divide it’s not easy to provide a smooth service especially in unforeseen situations and that’s what makes me nervous for the future.
The Eurostar/Eurotunnel mixed roles in the communication problem are confirmed.
According to French newspaper Le Monde, quoting Nicolas Petrovic, Eurostar deputy managing director:
- Eurotunnel is responsible for any communication inside the tunnel;
- Eurostar CANNOT talk to its train staff inside the tunnel.
UDPATE III 22 DEC
French newspaper Le Figaro confirming Eurotunnel and Eurostar finger pointing and accusing each other of being at fault:
According to Eurostar, it is up to the tunnel operator to manage communication inside the tunnel. But for Eurotunnel, it is up to Eurostar to maintain the contact with the passengers inside the coaches.
And this incredible statement:
Once the trains are in the tunnel, the onboard staff is exclusively in touch with Eurotunnel. But Eurotunnel claims that for one of the 5 trains they did not receive any help request from Eurostar.
I am now getting nervous for my future travels, because I don’t like the idea of being left alone in an emergency situation due to gaps in responsibilities.
Ah I see you saw the same Eurotunnel press release as I saw. I now updated my post – and your name:-)
I know the Swiss Lötschberg situation, a 16 km long tunnel that basically connects Bern with the Rhone Valley in Switserland. It was the main artery for trains from Bern to Milan via the Simplon tunnel between Switserland and Milan in Italy until the opening of a new, wider tunnel, the Lotschberg Basis Tunnel in 2007 which is lower than the original one and that now is used for the passenger trains.
Unlike the chunnel shuttles the carriages there are open air. If it is minus 10 outside and you sit in your car on the shuttle it will be fogged all over within a minute after you have entered the tunnel, because the temperature inside the tunnel is approximately 14 to 16 degrees.
My point is that this is a very normal situation in tunnels in areas that can suffer cold wheather. We have many of those all over Europe.
So I fail to understand why Eurostar claims the wheather as a cause of failure of their trains and have a feeling Eurotunnel is more to the point here…
I am also not convinced by the technical root cause of the problem given so far, but I think it’s not so simple. The extreme cold might have required power generators in the area to shift power to other circuits and for some reason the Eurostar circuits lost power? Maybe an electronic security “feature”?
Also I cannot believe that train 1 goes 1 and gets stuck, train 2 goes in and gets stuck too, and they still allow trains 3 and 4 (and maybe even a 5th one) to go in.
In all cases I trust the engineers to find an answer and do their job. I am much more concerned with the Eurostar communication failure and I will try to learn more.
With all the engineering failures that I have encountered with the rebuilding of my hotel, I have become by nature suspicious of engineers’ abilities to cope with matters…I don’t know what it is… suspect they cannot think out of their boxes…as you said yourself: not 1, but 5 trains stuck…
This blogger story tells a lot about Eurotunnel’s own customer communication skills: