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Fire struck Swiss tunnel faces alternating one way traffic


SWITZERLAND WAS this week expected to impose tough new restrictions on traffic using the Saint Gotthard road tunnel after a fire caused by a head on collision between two lorries killed 11 people.

Officials said they were considering the radical step of alternating the directional flow of traffic using the single bore tunnel when it reopens next year.

This would mean alternately closing the 16km tunnel to northbound traffic so that southbound vehicles can use both lanes and vice versa.

At least 11 people died in the tunnel after two lorries collided head on at 9.40am on 24 October, bursting into flames. The collision was 1km from the tunnel's southern entrance. One lorry was carrying tyres and tarpaulin;

the other had no cargo.

Firefighters using a fan to blow a mist of water droplets ahead of them took 36 hours to put out the fire. Temperatures rose to 1,000infinityC causing sections of the 120mm thick reinforced concrete roof slab to collapse, hampering rescue efforts. At one point the blaze engulfed 300m of tunnel.

Several motorists escaped choking smoke through cross passages linking the main carriageway to a parallel service tunnel every 250m. Those who died are thought to have suffocated within minutes of the blaze starting.

The tunnel is not expected to reopen until the beginning of next year at the earliest.

Imposing an alternating traffic flow on tunnel traffic will reduce the risk of head on collisions. This is expected to be accompanied by new restrictions on the number of lorries using the tunnel.

Officials are also planning to impose compulsory minimum distances between vehicles inside the tunnel. This would avoid the risk of traffic jams forming immediately behind a fire.

Similar restrictions are to be imposed on the 11.6km Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy. This is expected to open early next year following repair and refurbishment after a fire in 1999 killed more than 40 people (NCE 1/8 April 1999).

Restrictions on Mont Blanc tunnel traffic will mean that traffic levels will be reduced to 10% of those immediately before the 1999 fire (News last week). Lorries are also to be kept at least 150m apart and cars will be kept separated by two seconds.

Coaches will be kept at 1.2km distances.

Swiss officials are expected to push for construction of a second road tunnel parallel to the fire damaged bore. At present the single bore tunnel is fed by two dual carriageway motorways.

On Monday the Swiss National Transport Commission voted by 14 to 10 in favour of building a second St Gotthard bore. The decision will have to be ratified by a national referendum.

Building a second bore would amount to a u-turn in Swiss policy. The commission rejected a similar proposal last year arguing that a second bore would attract more traffic, increasing pollution levels in the Alps.

The decision would require a change in the Swiss constitution, which is drawn up to encourage greater use of rail transport.

Swiss transport department head Max Freedli this week traveled to Rome to discuss the impact of the tunnel closure with Italian officials.

Motorway links through Switzerland and the St Gotthard tunnel are vital trade routes between Italy and northern Europe.

Italian officials are said to be extremely concerned about the closure of the St Gotthard tunnel as it has added to disruption caused by the closure of the Mont Blanc tunnel on the French/ Italian border.

Another of Switzerland's Alpine tunnels was closed on Tuesday when two lorries collided head on. Neither vehicle caught fire and there were no casualties.

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