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Can anyone explain the chunnel fiasco?

Five trains in, none out

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Comment During the weekend channel tunnel fiasco, Eurostar sent five trains into the tunnel and not one came out. Only then did it stop sending trains.

Okay. Imagine you're Eurostar's fat controller in charge of despatching trains. Two have gone into the tunnel and not come out. Do you send in trains number three, four, and five?

Not unless you're a blithering idiot or you simply don't know they're stuck in the tunnel. Let's give Eurostar HR department the benefit of the doubt and assume it doesn't employ blithering idiots. Why then did train number three get a green signal to enter the tunnel?

Next, with three trains stuck in the tunnel, why did train number four get a green light? And if it is beggaring belief that train number four got a green light for tunnel entry, how in the name of the all-seeing being did train number five get one?

There can only be one answer: Eurostar operates blind when trains are in the tunnel. The tunnel operator, Eurotunnel, is in charge of controlling trains in the tunnel, not Eurostar. Either it did not tell Eurostar fast enough, so that Eurostar could hold up trains before they entered the tunnel, or it didn't put up its own red signal at the tunnel entrance.

There are four main questions that need answering. Why did the trains fail? Why did five trains stall in the tunnel instead of just one? Why were passenger communications so bad? and why did it take so long to extract the stalled trains?

Chunnel signalling

The French part of the Eurostar network is operated by the French national railway operator, SNCF. The UK side's infrastructure and stations is operated by Eurostar (UK) Ltd (EUKL), a subsidiary of London and Continental Railways (LCR), which actually owns the high-speed infrastructure and stations on the British side.

It would appear that a Eurostar train from France to London travels on an SNCF infrastructure to the channel tunnel station, Eurotunnel's tunnel, and then on LCR infrastructure to London. That's three separate operators with the first and third actually forming part of Eurostar.

The basic principle of railway operation is that a track is divided into sections by signals. A train travelling on the track enters a section by seeing a green signal light. If it then sees a red signal light at the end of that section, it stops. The track operator detects that it has not passed that signal and sets the preceding signal red so as to stop a second train entering the section and running into the first train.

We know five trains entered the tunnel at Coquelles in France and stopped, with none coming out at Cheriton, near Folkstone, in England. Ergo, there must be at least five signal-delimited sections of track underneath the English Channel. In fact there are lots, as the more blocks there are in a section of track, the more trains can pass along it a given time.

Jonathan Groves, MD of Groves Systems, a railway signalling consultancy, says that the chunnel, with its 31.4 miles of track, could take possibly as many as fifty to sixty trains before all the track blocks had trains on them and do so "in complete safety." He says that there is an RCC (Railway Control Centre) at the Cheriton chunnel station in England which controls all rail movements through the tunnel.

It has a wall-sized display screen, "with about 3m LEDs," and thought to be the world's largest LED control panel, that shows the chunnel track and blocks, and the trains in the chunnel. With this, Groves says: "The RCC operators would have been able to see all the trains in the tunnel."

What is clear then is that unless there was an RCC failure, Eurotunnel knew trains were backing up in the tunnel but only stopped trains entering the tunnel after five had got stuck. Given the length of time it then took to get the stalled trains out of the tunnel - sixteen hours or more - that was a dreadful mistake.

Eurotunnel also could have told stalled train drivers that they were stuck and would be until their trains were extracted from the chunnel - and how long such extractions would take. Judging by passenger reports drivers did not give this information to passengers, and we can assume that Eurotunnel did not give the information to the drivers and other train staff.

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