What is Eurostar Security for?

The airport-style security measures for Eurostar passengers serve no useful purpose. What are they for? They are make-work and self-aggrandisement for out of control customs officials. I believe they are dangerous, because they are training the general public to follow the arbitrary instructions of any uniformed bureaucrat.

The Security Checks

First there’s the queuing. Customs feel that they have to demonstrate that they are working hard by making travelling as inconvenient as possible. They are slow, therefore you have to wait. It’s the same with any unchecked bureaucracy – the petty official will make you wait for no other reason than the feeling of power that it gives him.

Once you’ve finally arrived at the front of the queue, there is the ‘strip’ ritual. The purpose here is to instruct you to do something and have that instruction obeyed. For example: even though they have the metal-detector arch, you are still instructed to remove your jacket and put it through the scanner.

Next comes the metal detector arch. Once, long ago these were set to detect large metal objects: guns, knives, a crude bomb timer perhaps. Now they have been set at their very lowest level, so even the smallest amount of metal will set them off. I have a modestly sized belt buckle that is guaranteed to set it off.

Naturally, when the metal detector goes off, you then have to submit to an intrusive groping by a burly officer. It interesting that at the Belgian customs, this is done with a hand-held metal detector rather than the UK’s more invasive ‘personal touch’.

What’s the Point?

I’m at a loss to understand the point of this rigmarole. What exactly are they looking for, and what are they hoping to stop?

The checks seem to be closely modelled on airline security checks which are designed to prevent weapons from being brought aboard the vehicle. Weapons can be used to hijack a plane and force it to go to new destinations. That’s a real threat, and it’s worth taking steps to combat it. Trains are a little more limited! I’m pretty sure that nobody is seriously concerned that terrorists might hijack the Eurostar and crash it into a building or force it to travel to Morocco or whatever.

Weapons (especially bombs) can also be used to attack the people travelling on a plane, and the same is of course true of trains. However, this is a threat on all trains. I can step out of my front door and onto a tube into central London, without even having my ticket checked, let alone being forced to queue and strip and undergo humiliating searches. What makes the Eurostar so much more of a tempting target to terrorists?

  • Because it goes through a tunnel? I don’t think so – tube trains travel through tunnels too!

  • Because it travels so fast? I don’t think so – there are trains just as fast in France & Belgium, and they have no such checks.

You say, “Ah, but the Channel Tunnel is so much deeper, so much harder to escape from than a little tube train tunnel!” – OK. So why then do car drivers not have to go through similar checks when they board Le Shuttle* trains? If I could sneak a small shoebox-sized bomb past lax Eurostar security, then I could equally load a huge bomb the size of a… well the size of a car onto Le Shuttle and explode it in the very same tunnel! And let’s not even start on the trains that carry lorries through the tunnel.

* Le Shuttle are trains that travel through the Channel Tunnel carrying hundreds of cars, with their drivers and passengers still in them.

My Conclusion

My conclusion is that the “security checks” for Eurostar passengers have absolutely nothing to do with security. They go to great lengths, and cause travellers great inconvenience in order to ‘close’ security hole that are left wide open in other parts of the same railway. Similar modes of transport that don’t happen to be ‘international’ are allowed to continue with no equivalent checks whatsoever.

So who benefits? Why the customs bureaucrats themselves. A few years ago, intra-European customs was fast becoming a quaint anachronism. On borders between Schengen Treaty signatories there were no customs check at all for travelling individuals. The virtual abolition of duty on personal purchases meant that UK customs official often had nothing to do but stand and watch travellers go by. The occasional American or Japanese tourist would liven up their day by providing a passport to check.

Now, our ports are brim full of customs bureaucrats, busily making nuisances of themselves. Who ordered this? Where is the justification?

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  1. alex said,

    31 July, 2005 @ 22:34

    The news today briefly mentioned that a suspected London bomber was able to leave the UK on a Eurostar train. Apparently there is going to be a ‘tightening’ of security as a result. Two points:

    1. This is an issue of immigration control, not security. The measures I rail against in this article are apparently aimed at preventing people from smuggling weapons aboard, they are nothing to do with filtering out ‘undesirable’ passengers.

    2. What? Passports are checked two or three times by different officials. Surely if somebody has been put on a watchlist, then they stand just as much chance of being noticed at Waterloo station as they would at Heathrow. Either this guy wasn’t put on a watch list, or an immigration official failed to notice him. What does the method of transport have to do with it?

    Finally, this guy was arrested anyway. So how has the system failed? I thought the whole point of cross border security cooperation was to enable people like this to be tracked and apprehended wherever they go, so that we don’t have to depend on unreliable border controls. That’s what we were being told a few years ago anyway. Seems like it’s working OK to me.

  2. Kevin O Sullivan said,

    24 January, 2006 @ 19:23

    Perhaps if the London and Madrid trains had such security checks such as the ones mention above those people could possibly still be alive…

    Would you be so quick to criticise attempts to secure passengers if you had a loved one on one of those trains or in fact if you had been on it yourself?

  3. alex said,

    24 January, 2006 @ 23:12

    Kevin: Would more security checks in London & Madrid have saved lives? In the end I don’t think so. It would just have been different people who died, in a slightly different place.

    I live in London. I could talk to you about the many millions of people who use the tube every day. About the impossibility of checking everyone’s bags… But I’m not going to talk about that, because even if it were possible, I don’t want to live in that world.

    My wife was travelling that day. I was worried for her safety. But I would rather that she died, than that she be forced to live in a land where every tiny action is monitored and controlled. Would I feel the same way if she had actually been killed or maimed? I can’t answer that, but I hope that I would be brave enough to do the right thing. Here’s what she herself wrote on this subject.

  4. Ann said,

    23 August, 2006 @ 17:08

    I realize that your blog posting was quite some time ago – but I would like to point out to you that the thing you do not take into consideration is that the Channel Tunnel is one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of our time – and certainly the act of terrorists destroying the channel tunnel would be a proverbial feather in their cap. So – when you get patted down at the Eurostar security check – you may wish to keep in mind that there is a purpose – a good purpose – to keep the channel tunnel as safe as possible….not just the passengers aboard the train, but the protection of the tunnel itself and the commerce it creates for the countries it links. A bombing inside the tunnel would be as much of a tragedy perhaps as the WTC towers in NYC – in terms of it’s “bragging rights” for terrorists and for the destruction of commerce relating to it’s existence. Would you have begrudged 3,000 Americans their lives if security could have saved them?

  5. alex said,

    23 August, 2006 @ 17:50

    Ann: You make a reasonable point about the Channel tunnel being a high profile target. However you’ve not accounted for the fact that cars and lorries are not subject to fingertip searches before they are allowed onto the trains. Why would a terrorist bother to try to sneak a bomb into his hand luggage, when it would be much easier for him to put a much more powerful device into his car and just drive aboard?

    So, I’m afraid you’ve not convinced me that Eurostar security is anything other than a ritual of deference to authority.

  6. Robert said,

    21 November, 2006 @ 12:55

    I think you will find that the main article is flawed. Who ever is complaining about security, clearly doesn’t know the difference between a Customs Officer, an Imigration Officer and Station Security Guards. It will always be the Station security guards who check passengers before they board the trains. Immigration and Customs officials will only normally check inbound passengers comming to the UK in designated work areas. Security Guards are imployed by the station management and follow strict guidelines set out by the DFT (Department For Transport). Security Guards do not have the same powers as Immigration Officers i.e. They cannot refuse entry to the UK. They also do not have the powers that Customs Officers have i.e. Powers of arrest, Stop and search, examination of vehicles, bags, freight etc. Don’t blame the agencies working at the frontier safe gaurding the United Kingdoms borders.

  7. John Pash said,

    20 September, 2008 @ 21:00

    Have you considered the amount of freight that goes through those tunnels every day? If the tunnels were unusable for 3 months or more, imagine what would happen to the price of every day goods such as food and petrol. Eventually, the supply route would be replaced by ferries, but the first few months would be a nightmare for people living in Britain. And the French would have to do without beans and mushy peas! mon dieu!

  8. Salvador said,

    17 October, 2008 @ 15:38

    The thing that gets me about the Eurostar security is that people with business class tickets are allowed through ten minutes before the departure time, whereas the rest of us have to be subject to the humiliating search.

    In one incident, when I peered to see the name on the badge (my eyesight is not very good) of the security officer who was laughing out loud about the contents of my case, he turned his badge round to prevent me seeing it. Since the supposedly accidental fire on a lorry on Sept 11 (!!!, I’ve just noticed the coincidence in the date) this year, security has been beefed up no end. They have brought in sniffer dogs and they went over my wife’s MP3 radio with a chromatography explosives detector.

    I suppose they don’t think anyone wanting to blow up the tunnel would lash out on a first class ticket, or go by car/Le Shuttle.

  9. Paul said,

    13 December, 2008 @ 23:38

    I agree with the original comment made about security being a waste of resources and an unneccesary inconvenience. I can never undertsnad why the UK feels that it needs to harras people when crossing the border when anyone can travel freely across all the borders on mainland Europe. I was recently stopped at Luton airport by a sniffer dog and staff because the dog identified something on my bag. The dog handlers and officials were mainly concerned that I was taking money out of the country. On reflection I realise that you can get a lot of £20 notes into hand luggage and in view of the latest ecomomic collapse you could be excused for drawing your bank balance down to nothing and taking the cash abroad. I have also been quite literally stripped down at Eurotunnel in France and had my vehicle stripped, they were clearly looking for guns and continued to look for drugs. The french customs are not pleasant when all you are doing is trying to get on your way. I think that in all honesty the UK is so anti drugs that they are really trying to stop the traffic of marijuana into the country, this would explain all routes out to belgium, netherlands and france. They can use any excuse to stop you these days. Explosives can be swabbed and that surely is all they need to be checking for.

  10. james dublin said,

    3 February, 2009 @ 19:22

    I realise this is an old posting, but its awesome and so true. and its cool that we built a tunnel under the sea but is it really such a feather in the cap for terrorists? they need good footage and theres none in le tunnel….if a tree falls over in the forest and nobody hears it (etc). I nearly spilt my pint laughing at the line about morocco. has anyone ever hijacked a train to get somewhere?

  11. MIckGJ said,

    10 April, 2009 @ 08:57

    An old post but one that deserves to be kept alive…the UK has a history of overreacting not just to actual threats but to ones that exist only in the hyperactive imaginations of officials. A classic example was after the Dunblane massacre, when the banning of handguns was extended to include all manner of weapons,..including blowpipes. No instance of blowpipe crime has ever been recorded in British history.

    There is no reason why taking a train to Paris should be any different than going to Birmingham or Manchester. The idea that a foot passenger could cause enough damage to close the tunnel “for three months” is laughable.

  12. J McKnight said,

    2 June, 2009 @ 16:44

    I have been through two lengthy security checks when trying to enter the London Eurostar terminal. Besides the fact that I lost some crucial time, the checks were painfully thorough and downright embarassing. All my carefully packed belongs were slowly taken out, examined, and left scattered. (One time I even misplaced my ticket in the ordeal and had to have a new one issued inside the secured area). The staff were not consider in the least bit and seem to abuse their right.

    It is particularly frustrating as no explanation is given for the search. I would avoid bringing X on the train if I knew it was a reason for the check. I am almost certainly security are not looking for bombs (or other terrorist devices) when they flip through my diary, etc, but perhaps smuggled drugs. This level of scrutiny does not happen when departing from the other side of the chunnel (Paris Gare du Nord). Furthermore, I have not been to an airport which goes at this much length to hold back passengers. Why does the Eurostar London have to be like this? Coincidentally, I have not been back on since getting rubbed the wrong way last time in early February 2009.

  13. John Breakwell said,

    17 September, 2013 @ 22:37

    This is a requirement of the Channel Tunnel legislation.

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