Safety vs. Profits Debate Doesn't Derail Chunnel

Eurostar starts up after tunnel fire, but with few riders

After the fire that closed the Channel Tunnel nearly three weeks ago, high-speed trains are back on track between Britain and France. But the cash-strapped operator, Eurostar, is being accused of pursuing profits ahead of passengers' safety.

So, too, is Eurotunnel, the Anglo-French company that built the Chunnel and has battled ever since to cut down a mountain of accumulated debt.

Rail travelers themselves are showing distinct signs of hesitation about climbing aboard the sleek Eurostar trains that connect London with Paris and Brussels.

After Eurostar was given the green light by an intergovernmental safety commission, the first 740-seat train to ease out of London's Waterloo Station at dawn on Dec. 4 carried no fare-paying passengers at all. Before the fire, the Chunnel had seized more than 50 percent of cross-Channel traffic.

Two American tourists - Marvel Crumpacker from Fort Wayne, Ind., and her daughter Denise - climbed aboard the "ghost train," as one newspaper later called it, when it stopped halfway to the coast. Two others travelers joined at Calais, in France. During the rest of the day, trains ran at less than a 20th of normal capacity.

Roger Gale, a British member of Parliament who has campaigned for more stringent Eurotunnel safety standards, said would-be passengers are "absolutely right to be cautious."

Mr. Gale says that to restart service, Eurostar was using only one of the Chunnel's twin undersea "tubes." The other was devastated by fire when a burning freight train entered from France and halted halfway through.

The resulting blaze caused damage that Eurostar officials say may take five months to fix. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the Chunnel's concrete lining, rail track, and electrical equipment were damaged.

Britain's fire brigade union has attacked the decision to resume Eurostar services before an inquiry into the cause of the Nov. 18 undersea blaze has been completed.

Colin Brown, research director for Britain's influential Consumers' Association, said the decision was "premature because the safety issue raised by this accident has not been satisfactorily addressed."

Eurostar agreed that three of the four main safety procedures in the Chunnel on Nov. 18 had failed to function properly. Eurostar should put safety before profit, Mr. Brown declared.

But Eurostar pointed out that before service resumed, a full rehearsal of an evacuation of a train stuck mid-Chunnel was carried out satisfactorily Dec. 2. Deputy chairman Adam Mills said the intergovernmental safety commission had assured him the Chunnel was safe, adding: "We would certainly never do anything to prejudice the safety of our passengers."

Gale and other critics note, however, that Eurotunnel has piled up debts totalling 9 billion ($14 billion) and claim that Eurostar is desperate to have trains running. The company is in head-on competition with seagoing passenger ferries between Britain and France.

To satisfy safety standards officers, Eurostar is having to keep manned trains on "hot standby" at both Chunnel entrances to act as emergency evacuation vehicles in case of another fire.

Mills has conceded however that if another accident occurred in mid-Chunnel, evacuated passengers would have to walk 1-1/2 miles before they reached a rescue vehicle.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.