ROUTES THROUGH the Alps were this week bought to a halt by Italian hauliers protesting about lack of tunnel access for lorries in the wake of recent fatal tunnel fires.
Drivers blocked entrances to tunnels across the region, causing massive disruption and delay, in frustration at rigorous restrictions imposed by the Swiss government on travel through the St Gotthard tunnel and delays to the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel. Most of the vital north-south European freight routes pass through the country.
Drivers estimate that an average journey across Switzerland now takes over eight hours, compared to between three and four hours before the restrictions.
Lorries passing through the St Gotthard tunnel must now be 150m apart (see NCE 1 November 2001) to avoid a repeat of the head on collision between two lorries last October which caused a devastating fire which left 11 people dead.
The tunnel reopened just before Christmas but lorries queueing on the motorway approaches have reduced much of the road to single lanes, effectively extending for kilometres the bottleneck caused by the tunnel which has one lane in each direction.
Problems have been compounded by the continued closure of the Mont Blanc tunnel in France which has not reopened since a major fire in May 1999.
Forty people died after a refrigerator lorry caught fire.
Commissioning tests on the management safety system, now complete, caused delays to the reopening. Further tests are now under way but it will only reopen after a joint Franco-Italian intergovernmental control committee has conducted its own safety exercises. This is expected in the next few days.
Politicians in Switzerland are calling for drastic action to reduce the congestion and delays.
One suggestion is for the St Gotthard tunnel to be used for traffic travelling south, with the nearby San Bernardino tunnel to take northerly travelling traffic.
Calls are growing for a European directive on tunnel safety. But any implementation is likely to take years.