Eurostar’s shabby behaviour – there should be a law against it

I was not altogether surprised that Eurostar had managed to strand four of its trains in the Channel tunnel. They have form. I was on a train in the summer similarly stranded, although thankfully not under the sea. There was little water and no food. There was also no meaningful information – and no concern.

We finally reached St Pancras long after the Underground had ceased running. Passengers were marshalled into snaking queues hoping to find late night taxis. Because my daughter and I were able to escape onto Thameslink – which curiously and usefully runs all night – we escaped the queues. We also escaped the opportunity of compensation.

Those caught this weekend were treated far worse. Their compensation is apparently £150 and a free return ticket – on a service that most of them will never use again as long as they live. Eurostar had also been spinning against them, claiming that they had been rescued. Some lost little time in telling the waiting media that they had had to rescue themselves.

The willingness of large companies to treat its customers and society with callous indifference is arguably one of the most troubling consequences of the political era which dawned in 1979.

Liberals have tended to concentrate on the need to devolve and disperse powers from central and local government, rather overlooking the fact that for most of us it does not matter whether a service is privately or publicly owned. What matters is whether you can do anything about it.

If a retail shop is rude to you then you can usually choose another shop. Choice is more difficult when you are already stuck in a tunnel under the sea. And it is difficult when dealing with monopolies or any other form of imperfect competition.

My local railway (yes, the one that runs all night) has furiously exploited its monopoly as the only practicable means of transport from St Albans into London: fares are high, car park fees so extortionate that local streets are blocked with free-loading commuters and even the petty cash left in our pockets is targeted as they seek to recover their franchise costs.

First Group announced last week (with text message fanfare) a 1.8% surcharge on those paying with credit cards (a high rate of interest by any standards, but especially given historically low bank rates). Yet they run an unreliable and overcrowded service.

We see the same attitude in a telephone company when it fails to repair your internet connection and blames your computer. Or when some other utility requires you to stay in all day for an engineer who fails to turn up (but claims to have called).

We need to expand the concept of rights. People have a right not to be left on a train underground for hours. People have a right to the services of a utility. Time perhaps also to re-examine Schumacher and explore new means by which large companies are governed, owned and regulated.

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17 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 23rd Dec '09 - 10:16am

    Utility and train company monopolies are a creation of that centralised government. They are pretty much wrong in every way. Plenty of solutions are available, but recent governments have preferred to hand out monopolies in exchange for quick cash.

  • >What matters is whether you can do anything about [service]

    car park fees so extortionate that local streets are blocked with free-loading commuters –
    surely they´re simply reacting to the fees. Can´t have it both ways.
    If the car park has empty spaces then the car park´s owner isn´t exploiting its monopoly very effectively. (BTW are you sure it´s FCC and not a separate organisation?)

    People have a right not to be left on a train underground for hours.

    In an ideal world no breakdowns would ever occur – of trains or communications. The idea this can be a “legal right” is absurd. How much food and water would you make Eurostar carry for the event that the train gets stuck in the tunnel? How much would it cost? How much food would be wasted?

    This article is grandstanding of Daily Mail proportions.

  • The story I heard, by a very indirect route so I am not vouching for its accuracy, is that the reason British trains broke down and not French ones is because the British operator has substantially cut down on train maintenance and the French operator hasn’t. Breakdowns do not necessarily just “occur”, David; they are usually the result of an error on the part of the operator, many of which are avoidable given the required degree of preventative maintenance/operator training.

  • Adela Stanley 23rd Dec '09 - 11:13am

    I have been delayed on Eurostar several times for up to five hours. Although I am full of admiration for the service, when it runs properly, and travel frequently, I dread the days when there is a breakdown as that is when things fall apart.

    It is very obvioius that staff training just covers the minimum when addressing emergency situations. Watching this weekends delays unfold, it seems Eurostar hasn’t learnt anything from previous delays. There is still the habit of staff to go and hide themselves whenever there is a problem; still no procedures for handing out emergency supplies of even basic things such as water; still no distribution for nappies, etc. Still no ‘flagging up’ of disabled passengers, still no procedures for making announcements.

    In their defence, I will say that the Belgian crews usually have a quicker. more customer-friendly approach to emergency procedures, followed by the British. When I have been unlucky enough to be stranded on a French-crewed train that is the worst; last time the French all whisked themselves behind a locked door and slammed the door in our faces.

    If Eurostar wants to restore the public’s confidence, can I suggest they immediately revise their customer-care training, and make EVERY member of train crews go through a thorough training course in crisis control and customer care.

  • I don’t think laws are the answer here. What we need is competition, so that bad companies go to the wall. Wilkinsons offered a better choice that Woolworths, Toyota produce better cars than GM or British Leyland, Easyjet and Virgin treat customers better than BA, and say what you like about Ryanair, it does what it says on the tin.

    That said, a law stating that firms must sort out problems “in an appropriate and timely manner” might allow a useful class action lawsuit against Eurostar.

  • Malcolm Todd 23rd Dec '09 - 4:47pm

    I’m baffled by the suggestion that Eurostar have a monopoly. Never heard of the aeroplane? Or, if that’s too modern, the ferry?

  • “There speaks somebody who has forgotten what it was like to deal with the state-owned enterprises. ”

    I come at this from almost completely the opposite direction to Tom but I’m a bit sceptical of the idea that pre-1979 was some sort of sunlit paradise of happy consumers.

    Maybe people didn’t have intractable complaints about their broadband supplier. However there was a several months long waiting list to get a phone installed.

  • On the other hand, prior to privatisation of the utilities one didn’t have to wade one’s way through 25,000 different energy tariffs to find the best deal, or have to be rude several times a day to people trying to get you to switch your utilities to a different company.

  • Tony is right – everyone got ripped off in the 1970s!

  • “On the other hand, prior to privatisation of the utilities one didn’t have to wade one’s way through 25,000 different energy tariffs to find the best deal,”

    Confused.com/compare the Meerkaat/uSwitch etc make that relatively straightforward

  • Providers, whether public or private, often treat their clients / users like sh*t if they think they can get away with it. Changing between public and private isn’t the answer. Sadly, even competition often isn’t either, despite the theory. All too often, nominally competing organisations such as high street banks and utilities settle down into a comfortable rut in which all provide a mediocre deal, everybody gets to know that they are all as bad as one another, and all happily keep their place in the market.

    The worst performance can come from organisations like schools which claim a moral superiority (“we’re poorly paid educators, so we must be the good guys”), which have a stranglehold over the customer (“don’t complain, or we’ll put it all down to your child’s bad behaviour”), and which have no real incentive to up their game (“don’t tell me he’s dyslexic, we don’t want to put in the extra work which that would imply, at the end of a school day we’re too exhausted”).

    We politicians need to get beyond the intellectually lazy “public bad, private good” type of response, or its opposite, and find recipes that actually work. How about Government publishing name-and-shame league tables for large commercial companies who sell to the retail customer, based for example on monitoring the level of complaints, environmental standards, health and safety prosecutions, etc?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Dec '09 - 11:38pm

    If Tom is trying to suggest that sloppy procedures and poor design in channel crossings are caused by state monopoly and would not be there is it were all run through free enterprise, perhaps he needs to be reminded of the MS Herald of Free Enterpise leaving Zeebrugge on 6 March 1987.

    If he feels it is impossible to get good reliable public transport under a state monopoly, maybe he needs to consider the Swiss Federal Railways.

  • Simon Titley 26th Dec '09 - 12:15am

    I’m a regular user of Eurostar between London and Brussels and, most of the time, the service is excellent. Since the journey time is around two hours city centre to city centre, flying is no longer a serious option. And over 90% of Eurostars arrive punctually, compared with about 65% of flights.

    But when things go bad, they can go spectacularly bad. I was due to travel from London to Brussels last Sunday and happened to be in Bath that day. Rather than remain in England indefinitely while Eurostar could offer no useful information about when trains would resume, I used my initiative and travelled from Bath to Poole by train, overnight ferry to Cherbourg, then train via Paris to Brussels, arriving 24 hours later than planned but with the certainty that this alternative route would work. But relatively few other passengers would have had the knowledge to work out an alternative route and Eurostar provided no information in this regard but simply advised against travel altogether.

    Breakdowns happen. Until the inquiry is complete, we won’t know for certain why a technical problem that had not occured in 15 years of operation (including several bad winters) happened this time. Regardless of the cause, Eurostar and Eurotunnel have to explain why it took so long for diesel locomotives to tow the broken-down trains out of the tunnel. Why could vans not drive down the service tunnel to deliver food and water to trapped passengers? And for those of us holding a ticket, uncertain of when we could travel, Eurostar’s information on its website told us little of any use and virtually abdicated responsibility.

    My previous bad experience was last month, when a 24-hour strike by Belgian rail workers left me with the option of re-booking travel for another day or risking travel on a Eurostar from London that terminated in Lille. I asked at St Pancras whether there would be coaches provided at Lille for onward transportation to Brussels. I was told no, because it was not Eurostar’s but Belgian Railways’ responsibility – this despite the fact that Belgian Railways is one of the three shareholders in Eurostar. Would domestic Belgian trains from Lille resume when the strike ended at 10pm that day? I was assured that they would (they didn’t). If I were stranded in Lille, would I be able to use my ticket on another high-speed train from Lille to Brussels the next day? We don’t know, I was told, ask when you get to Lille. In the event, I had to stay overnight in a hotel in Lille (cheaper than doing so in London). As it happens, I know Lille reasonably well, the locations of the two stations and where the hotels are concentrated, and I can speak some French. Any passengers less resourceful than me – unless they had taken Eurostar’s advice not to travel at all – would have found no useful help or information available.

    I was also one of those passengers affected by the tunnel fire in September 2008 but won’t bore you at length about that experience. But a pattern has emerged. Eurostar’s customer service and public relations are fine when things are running smoothly but fall apart at the first sign of a crisis. Keeping customers in the dark (both literally as well as metaphorically), failing to provide useful information about travel and accommodation alternatives, and passing the buck seem to be the order of the day. Eurostar’s stock advice is simply “don’t travel”, which assumes that all their customers are making discretionary leisure trips.

    I agree that there has been poor customer service but I don’t think either Schumacher or privatisation are the answer in this instance. Services on the scale of Eurostar will only ever be run by major rail operators, and the scope for competition is limited, especially given that ordinary trains cannot be used in the tunnel because they lack the necessary safety equipment. A rival to Eurostar in the form of Veolia or DB might emerge in the medium term, assuming they can make the capital outlay on a fleet of specially-equipped trains, but don’t hold your breath.

    Bad management and a lack of adequate contingency planning are at the root of this problem. And failures such as this do enormous damage to the Eurostar brand, especially in Britain where train travel has a poor reputation to begin with, and the media made this fiasco the number one news item.

    If the scope of the inquiries by the British and French governments were expanded to include Eurostar’s ability to cope with crises in general, we might get some rational answers to this problem.

  • Tom Papworth should indeed look at the experience of virtually any other European country with rail service worth calling one to realise that the point he is making is at best, irrelevant. There is no parallel whatsoever between running a supermarket like Tesco and operating a public transport network. I write about retailing for a living, have a degree in Economics and I can assure you of that. Anyone who thinks Tesco Express should be a kind of train service and not a store format should be taken on a compulsory educational tour of the best of European rail networks to be made to understand what nonsense they are talking.

    It is astonishing that we are all so cowed into submission by the market-led ideologists that after years of conspicuous, abject and expensive failure there is still no admission by any of the main parties that rail needs to be taken out of private hands. Are we so bereft of ideas about alternative forms of management and ownership that all people can come up with is to give the train operating companies even longer franchises and lighter regulation? As if that would magically cure greedy and incompetent management and exploitation of the public purse for private ends. It is like giving a persistent alcoholic longer opening hours and full control of the bar.

    The Lib Dems should be advocating the setting up of a public commission to look at the utter the failure of private rail and possible alternative forms of ownership, based on international best practice.

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