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Fire struck Swiss tunnel imposes one way lorry traffic

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SWITZERLAND HAS imposed tough restrictions on lorries travelling through the Alps following the blaze which swept through the St Gotthard tunnel in October after a head on collision, closing it to traffic.

Lorries diverting from St Gotthard through the 6km, two-lane San Bernardino tunnel are allowed to travel in one direction only to reduce the risk of a repeat head on accident. Directional flow is alternated every 30 minutes.

Police are also enforcing a 150m gap between lorries travelling over mountain passes in the Swiss Alps to ease extra traffic congestion resulting from the diversion.

At least 11 people died in the St Gotthard tunnel after the collision on 24 October, 1km from the tunnel's southern entrance.

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. At one point the blaze engulfed 300m of tunnel.

Several motorists escaped choking smoke through cross passages to a parallel service tunnel. 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.

Similar lorry restrictions are to be imposed on the 11.6km Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy when it opens again early next year following repair and refurbishment after a fire in 1999.

As a result traffic levels will be reduced to 10% of those at the time of the 1999 fire. Lorries will be kept at least 150m apart and cars 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.

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

This reverses its rejection of a second tunnel last year, in the fear that it 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 travelled to Rome to discuss the impact of the tunnel closure with Italian officials.

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

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

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