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Mont Blanc tunnel repair plans come under fire from French MPs

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FRENCH MPs last week savaged plans to convert a ventilation duct in the fire damaged Mont Blanc tunnel into an emergency exit, describing them as unsafe, makeshift and penny-pinching.

A cross-party select committee said that even after completion of the proposed £100M repair programme, people would only be able to escape a future fire in the 11.6km tunnel on foot.

Fire swept through the single bore Mont Blanc tunnel on the French/Italian border on 24 March 1999, killing 41 people. The blaze took 53 hours to put out (NCE April 1/8 1999) and many of those killed were trapped because there was no separate escape tunnel.

The MPs' comments came in a report on the safety of French road and rail tunnels.

The report said that although Mont Blanc's French tunnel operator ATMB and its Italian counterpart SITMB had considered boring a parallel service tunnel as part of the repair programme, the idea had been rejected as too expensive and so never presented to the tunnel's inter-governmental safety committee.

Instead they have chosen to convert a ventilation duct under the tunnel's road deck into a fire escape.

'This solution is makeshift and does not allow a mass evacuation,' says the report.

'What will happen if one or several buses carrying children or old people was caught up in a future accident? Without extensive improvements to this - notably increasing the minimum width of the duct to 1.4m and introducing continuous lighting - evacuation is impractical without the help of specialist personnel.'

The report concludes: 'This tunnel should be exemplary in terms of safety, given the catastrophe it went through. It cannot be the subject of half measures, if only out of respect for the victims and their families.'

Repair contracts are due to be awarded shortly. In addition to converting the fire escape duct, work will involve cutting 16 extra sealed fire shelters into the tunnel walls. This will increase the number to one every 300m - twice as many as at the time of the fire.

Fire monitoring equipment and ventilation is also to be beefed up and new equipment to detect overheating vehicles installed.

A single tunnel operator will be established to manage safety of the whole tunnel.

The report is expected to be published shortly on the internet at www.senat.fr/opecst/rapports

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