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Eurotunnel challenged on decision to scrap fire sprays

Channel Tunnel firm failed to install suppression system after developing prototype.

Fire engineers this week questioned Eurotunnel’s justification for abandoning measures to protect the Channel Tunnel.

One engineer involved with the development of a prototype on board sprinkler system blamed cost cutting for the tunnel operator’s decision to axe fire suppression measures. It has emerged that fire Suppression Systems (FSS) designed to protect the Channel Tunnel from blazes on wagons carrying lorries were ordered.

A prototype was built in the early part of this decade and was tested by Eurotunnel in 2004, but the system was never rolled out. By 2004/5 Eurotunnel was slashing spending to curb losses of almost £3bn in three years. Since then two fires have hit the tunnel, one in 2006 and one on September 11 this year. Both fires were aboard lorry carriers.

In 2004, Eurotunnel had been testing a mist system using nozzles developed by Colognebased Fogtec. This required one carriage to be removed from each train, and replaced with a truck carrying a water reservoir. With this system trains would have stopped at a point convenient for passengers to enter the service tunnel when a fire broke out. A fine mist would then deal with the fire.

Fogtec’s system is now installed on every new train that uses tunnels in Switzerland and Austria. But Eurotunnel claims that it chose not to proceed with it for technical reasons. Fogtec senior research and development engineer Stefan Kratzmeir admitted that the prototype had teething problems. But he blamed the decision not to install the system on cost. "The reason [for the contract termination] was money," he said.

In its official report into the 2006 fire, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch said that: "Despite the development of the prototype [FSS] Eurotunnel concluded that the system would be unreliable in service, expensive to maintain, and would deliver few benefits to the safety of persons."

This argument is still used by Eurotunnel, but a source close to the development of the prototype said: "I don’t recall any major reliability issues with the FSS compared to other new systems, although any complex engineering system inevitably needs tuning. It’s also pretty obvious that it’s less costly to maintain systems than to rebuild tunnels and replace trains. "Finally, it was never designed with people’s safety in mind – they have been evacuated by the time it activates.”

Fire experts questioned the wisdom of cancelling a fire suppression system when the first Channel Tunnel fire caused £200M worth of damage to the tunnel lining and Eurotunnel’s revenues.

Official estimates put the cost of the September Channel Tunnel fire at at least £46M in damage to the tunnel plus lost revenue. Leader of the British delegation to the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority Richard Clifton said he had seen a demonstration of the Channel Tunnel Fogtec prototype in operation in 2004, and would consider calling for it to be introduced again. "Our responsibility is the safety of people," said Clifton. "Even if emergency procedures have worked well, there are still hazards to safety, as firefighters are putting themselves in danger through tackling the blaze. Onboard FSS will be reviewed in light of this fire."

Kratzmeir strongly criticised Eurotunnel’s decision not to proceed with the system. "It was the wrong decision as we see what happened [in the September fire] again. The systems would have needed more work, but that investment would be small compared to the damage to the tunnel," he said.

Halcrow director of fire safety Fathi Tarada would not comment on the specific configurations in the Fogtec prototypes for the Channel Tunnel. But he said: "The reliability of such systems can be measured in terms of ‘Safety Integrity Level', of which the mean time between failures is a component. I would expect that mist systems [of this type] can be highly reliable, if operated and maintained adequately."

Eurotunnel said that its action complied with the wishes of the Channel Tunnel’s Intergovernmental Committee (IGC). "Decisions on safety in the Channel Tunnel require IGC and Channel Tunnel Safety Authority approval. We did conduct extensive tests with FSS," it said "The IGC set the regulations that we have to abide by – the tunnel is effectively owned by the British and French governments and we operate under their regime. Safety is on their side," he said.

However, the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority qualified this. Clifton said: "We would only be able to insist on particular safety features in law if there is a 'reasonable and practicable improvement'. "If Eurotunnel wanted to use FSS, they would make a submission and we would usually agree unless we spotted a safety problem with it. Eurotunnel had submitted information papers on the FSS, but they abandoned the project," said Clifton.

Eurotunnel insisted that its safety practices were approved by the IGC, and that it would look again at new safety features once the report into the September 11 fire is published.

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