FRANCE AND Italy have this week agreed to slash the number of vehicles using the Mont Blanc road tunnel by 90% to prevent a repeat of the 1999 fire in which more than 40 people died.
There are also plans for a 10% to 25% hike in tolls for vehicles travelling between France and Italy via the Mont Blanc and nearby Frejus tunnels. These moves are intended to force more freight and motorists onto transalpine rail services.
A French government spokesman said that once the 11.6km two lane, single bore tunnel reopens early next year, traffic will be restricted to 220 vehicles an hour in each direction. This compares with the average of 2,065 vehicles per hour using the tunnel in 1998.
Heavy goods vehicle access will also be controlled so that each is a minimum of 150m apart inside the tunnel. Coaches will only be allowed to enter if they stay 1.2km apart.
The restrictions are intended to stop vehicles from bunching up as they did in March 1999 when a refrigerator truck caught light. Smoke from the blaze killed occupants of the vehicles which had formed a tailback on either side of the fire (NCE 1/8 April 1999).
Operators will now use barriers at each end of the tunnel to restrict the entry of lorries and coaches.
New equipment has been installed inside the tunnel as part of a £130M repair programme to ensure that speeds and distances are maintained. This and other new safety equipment is now being tested ahead of the tunnel reopening early next year.
Extra money raised from the toll increases will go towards construction of a new £4bn, 52km rail tunnel under the Alps, a spokesman for the French transport department said this week.
New restrictions for cars using the Mont Blanc tunnel are expected to be announced within the next week. They are likely to insist that motorists stay at least two seconds behind the vehicle in front.
INFOPLUS www. nceplus. co. uk