A PROTOTYPE water sprinkler system will be fitted to a Eurotunnel freight shuttle later this year, the company has confirmed. But new second generation shuttles ordered this week will be a similar open-lattice design to that involved in the disastrous Channel Tunnel fire in November 1996.
Trials on the sprinkler system were carried out in the north of England by fire engineering specialist Darchem Industries. A Eurotunnel spokeswoman said the purpose of the sprinklers was to protect the structure of the tunnel, not to increase passenger safety. This will continue to depend on a policy of swift evacuation through the central service tunnel, she said.
A further year of in-service trials will follow before all shuttles are retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Large water storage tanks will cut the capacity of the wagons by the equivalent of one HGV, to 23 in the case of the original design and to 31 on the new shuttles.
'Given the enormous cost of the damage to the tunnel caused by the fire, this loss of capacity is a very worthwhile investment,' the spokeswoman said.
Lattice-sided shuttles were criticised heavily after the 1996 fire, particularly by the Fire Brigades Union (NCE 15 May 1997). But although the second generation of shuttles ordered from French manufacturer Arbel differ in many details from the original seven, the lattice sides are retained.
According to Eurotunnel, the latest shuttles are 'simpler and more traditional' than the original designs. 'They are much easier to maintain, and better maintenance means improved safety,' the spokeswoman claimed.
She cited the removal of internal lighting and of connections which allowed refrigerated trucks to keep their systems running during the journey as the main examples of simplification.
And she continued to reject claims that an enclosed design would be safer. 'Once the passengers have been evacuated the open sides make it easier to fight the fire,' she said.
Two of the new shuttles are already in service, three are on order and an extra four were ordered this week. By the time all 16 are in service in 2003, freight capacity will have doubled, Eurotunnel said. New tunnels and platforms will be built at both terminals to handle the increased traffic.