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The Eurostar is 30 years old: behind the scenes at the cross-Channel train maintenance center in London

The entrance is almost as well guarded as Buckingham Palace or the runways of Heathrow Airport.

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The Eurostar is 30 years old: behind the scenes at the cross-Channel train maintenance center in London

The entrance is almost as well guarded as Buckingham Palace or the runways of Heathrow Airport. In north-east London, around ten kilometers from the center of the British capital, there is a little-known site that is nevertheless essential to Eurostar traffic. As 2024 marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the cross-Channel rail link, Le Figaro was able to enter one of the railway company's best-kept locations: Temple Mills, the main maintenance and Eurostar maintenance.

Even before entering, red signs, in English, announce the color: “You are now entering a Restricted Zone”. “The site is subject to specific regulations for the Channel Tunnel, identified by the authorities as at risk of terrorism and intrusion,” Xavier Monthieux, quality, safety and environment manager at Temple Mills, calmly explains to us, construction helmet hidden under an orange cap on his head and fluorescent safety vest on his shoulders.

It is here that the 25 traditional Eurostar trains, the famous blue trains (of the 51 that the company currently has since the merger with Thalys last year), come to the stand for checks, ranging from routine operations to heavier maintenance. On average once a week, trains, arriving at London's St Pancras station and its sumptuous glass roof, continue their journey to the Temple Mills depot, in the Leyton district. There, they take one of the six reception routes. Two lanes are dedicated to emptying toilets and filling up with water. A washing system is installed on one track. Then the trains enter the main building of the site, a gray building of a few floors.

They enter directly into the Temple Mills workshop. A workshop whose end is almost difficult to see, with its 450 meters long! The building was in fact designed especially for Eurostar trains, 400 meters long, like two TGV trains. Why such a length anyway? Simply for safety reasons: in the Channel Tunnel, emergency escape doors are located every 375 meters. 400 meter trains therefore make it possible to be certain that passengers have a short distance to go to quickly exit the tunnel in the event of a fire, for example.

Also read: Destinations, comfort, prices... Everything that the Eurostar-Thalys merger changes for travelers

But for the 500 people who work at Temple Mills, including 250 directly on the trains, these are miles to travel every day. We then understand the usefulness of the fluorescent pink bicycles scattered throughout the workshop. There, the trains can be examined from every angle by the workers, who are overwhelmingly male. Each track has a high footbridge and a pit under each train. “What we monitor the most are the running gear, because that’s what wears out the most,” reports Xavier Monthieux, raising his voice a little to cover the background noise of the workshop, which finds its source in the heating and air conditioning systems of trains. A painstaking job, given that each train is equipped with 128 steel wheels. “We also look a lot at the equipment on the roof,” adds the manager. In particular the pantographs, these kinds of articulated arms which unfold to capture the electric current circulating on the catenaries.

Distributing “hello” and handshakes to the employees encountered on the site, the safety manager then shows us an unusual scene: a train… without a wheel. “The bogies (the trolleys on which the axles of the trains are fixed, Editor’s note) are being changed, he describes to us, as part of what we call the “R2 Exam”.” This is the heaviest maintenance that exists, to which Eurostars must undergo every 3.5 million kilometers. Absolutely all the parts of the train are changed on this occasion. An operation which immobilizes the train for ten weeks. For comparison, most maintenance here typically lasts between two days and a week.

For these operations under the trains, the trains can pass through a specific building, located a few dozen meters from the workshop. This has two lanes, under which passes a huge pit several meters high. “It is used to remove train components from below, in particular bogies, and to reprofil axles,” explains Xavier Monthieux.

For the rest of the visit, the manager guides us quickly towards the back of the center. We then enter a huge warehouse, whose shelves climb to the ceiling. This is where the spare parts necessary for Eurostar maintenance are stored. Thousands and thousands of parts are stored there, and managed according to the Japanese “5S” method: Seiri (eliminate), Seiton (tidy), Seiso (clean), Seiketsu (standardize) and Shitsuke (respect). “Parts are the crux of the matter,” says Xavier Monthieux. Here, there are no less than 25,000 different part references, ranging from electronic cards to coffee machines.” This is what is needed to repair these engineering monsters, assemblies of 80,000 different parts.

Despite its 1500 m2, the lack of space in the warehouse is felt. You just need to see the imposing bodywork or axle elements forced to be stored outside, next to the car park, some under tarpaulins to avoid getting wet by the (frequent) London rain. A new storage building is currently being built on the site, which is not very old. It opened in 2007, following the relocation of London's Eurostar station from Waterloo to St Pancras, replacing the previous maintenance centre.

To put this entire organization to music, there is a need for conductors. This is the role of the department called “Production office”, whose offices are adjacent to the maintenance workshop. “We are here in the reactor core,” says Xavier Monthieux, lowering his voice so as not to disturb his colleagues, their eyes glued to their computers. The site's operational manager is installed there, and alongside him the leaders of the different teams of workers. At the back of the room, a colorful Excel spreadsheet is projected onto a section of the wall, listing the different exams scheduled for the trains. “Everything is planned, but we also make regular updates on the progress of operations,” explains Xavier Monthieux.

A few meters away, in an adjacent office, we interrupt an operator in the middle of lunch. Irene Mejias is “Operations Controller” here. In other words, it is responsible for switching trains through the maze of tracks at Temple Mills. “A key role in security,” she emphasizes. Before his eyes, on several computer screens, a simplified map of Temple Mills is displayed in real time, with a color code to differentiate between occupied routes and those which are free.

If the demonstration it offers us seems rather simple, since it “is enough” to click on the origin and desired destination of the train, the reality is more complex. “Three trains can move simultaneously, so we must avoid track conflicts and prioritize movements to avoid possible accidents,” she explains to us in English. A train driver is always present at his side to help him during train movements. In case of extreme emergency, the operator has an unmissable red button on her desk which immediately stops all movements.

However, although they are pampered, no oar lasts forever. At 30 years old, Eurostar is reaching an important moment in its history. “Trains have a lifespan of 30 years on average,” emphasizes Xavier Monthieux. Now is the time to renew the fleet. The company - of which SNCF is the majority shareholder - has therefore launched a call for tenders to acquire new trains. With a criterion written in bold in the specifications: that these new trains are interoperable. That is to say, they can travel between Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam as well as on the cross-Channel connection between the French and British capitals. What the red trains, the ex-Thalys, are unable to do today, not having the safety equipment or approvals necessary to cross the Channel Tunnel. Optimization of the fleet is therefore essential if the company, which transported 18.6 million passengers in 2023, wants to achieve its objective of 30 million passengers in 2030.

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