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Lessons unlearnt

When NCE reported the disastrous Channel Tunnel fire in November 1996, serious failings in the operator's safety systems were identified as a major contributor to the severity of the blaze. 'Safety should, obviously, be re-examined and lessons learned from this incident', was the conclusion reached by NCE.

Less than three years later, we are reporting on another catastrophic tunnel fire, tragically this time one with fatal consequences (see News).

In 1996 Eurotunnel was fortunate that no one was killed. It still paid a high price in lost revenue while it repaired the damaged tunnel. Eurotunnel has completely revamped its emergency procedures and now scrutinises the safety of everything going into the Channel Tunnel.

There is no doubt that it is now safer. But plans to introduce sophisticated and expensive fire suppression systems on its shuttles are sadly still unrealised.

Certainly tunnels can be made safe. 0resund Tunnel in Denmark is reckoned to be one of the safest ever built. It features heat resistant cladding to protect the vulnerable concrete lining and sophisticated ventilation systems capable of extracting smoke and poisonous gases efficiently, as well as communication, surveillance and fire detection to continuously monitor what is happening in the tunnel.

The problem, all too familiar whenever NCE reports disasters, still seems to lie with consistency. While many, perhaps the majority, are doing the right thing, the absence of enforceable standards leaves the less able or willing as the weak link in the safety chain. News that it has taken nine years to produce a coherent standard on tunnel design in the UK comes as a surprise. It is too long. Inconsistencies and confusion caused when numerous up-to-date and out-of-date guidance documents are in force simultaneously are a sure way to end up with a tragedy.

If the profession, and society in general, is to learn anything from this fire, it must surely be that when given a lesson like the Channel Tunnel fire, it must react. Any fatalities inside a piece of infrastructure are unacceptable. The Mont Blanc death toll cannot be just another accident which produces fine words of intent.

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