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Kaprun blaze exposes tunnel safety failings

OPERATORS OF the funicular railway tunnel in Austria where a fire killed 156 people at the weekend have admitted that they did not stage fire drills.

'There were never actual fire drills as it was not thought the train could catch fire, ' said a spokesman for the Saltzberg regional government.

Fire broke out in a train 600m from the entrance to the 3.29km tunnel as it began its climb to ski slopes at Kitzsteinhorn at around 8.30am on Saturday. The cause of the blaze was still unknown as NCE went to press.

Burning intensified within minutes, despite the fact that the train was made of flame resistant materials. The fire was fuelled by air sucked into the lower end of the 42.5% gradient tunnel by a chimney effect.

The fire exposed serious weaknesses in arrangements for dealing with fires inside the tunnel.

All but 11 of those on the train died as did the driver of the down train trapped on a passing loop at the tunnel's mid point.

Three people at the top of the mountain near the tunnel entrance also died after they were overcome by smoke and fumes.

Around 60 of the train's passengers suffocated as they struggled up an emergency staircase next to the track inside the single bore tunnel.

All died within 60m of the train, unable to escape smoke and poisonous fumes being swept up the tunnel.

Had they continued they would have had to get out via a 638m long escape shaft at the tunnel's mid point, 900m uphill from the fire.

Those who escaped fought their way downhill through the fire which was at the back of the train to make their way to the tunnel entrance.

Walter Thaler, a Saltzberg regional government official, told NCE that the fire brigade took 30 minutes to reach the site.

The local fire brigade is made up of volunteers who had to assemble at Kaprun fire station before heading for the tunnel.

They were flown by helicopter to the top of the mountain and then to the escape passage which gives access to the tunnel's mid-point.

Access to the Kaprun end of the tunnel is limited by a steep 601m viaduct. Fire fighters were also reluctant to enter the tunnel from the downhill entrance in case the funicular cable snapped sending the train plunging towards them.

The 29m long funicular train was carrying only two fire extinguishers, one at the front and one at the back. The tunnel had no fire doors at either end nor a sprinkler system.

Passengers had not been told of evacuation procedures and it is not known if the driver was able to speak to passengers over a tannoy system.

The single carriage train travelling through the 3.29km tunnel was powered by two 800kw winches at the top of the tunnel and pulled by a 48mm diameter cable. The system was capable of carrying 1,240 people an hour.

Saltzberg government officials said that the tunnel was lit but even before the fire visibility would have been poor. It was possible for passengers to take torches from the train out into the tunnel.

Officials said the train driver spoke the control centre at the top of the mountain warning of the fire. But neither the driver nor the controller actually applied the brakes, so it is not known why the train stopped after it caught fire.

It is now believed the driver opened the train doors after the fire broke out.

The train also has an independent braking system, but this only comes into action if there is a problem with the cable.

The fire was put out by Saturday afternoon, though there were still pockets of smoke in the tunnel on Sunday.

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