An official report into the Channel Tunnel fire in September 2008 – which destroyed a 1km section of the tunnel and disrupted services for six months – has been published.
The joint report from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and its French equivalent, BEA-TT, says inadequate understanding of emergency procedures by lorry drivers, the poor positioning of the train in relation to an evacuation ‘cross-passage’, and communications difficulties made the evacuation of the train more difficult.
The report also says firefighting operations were hampered by the vulnerability to fire of the backup electricity supply, communications equipment and firefighting equipment.
Among the report’s recommendations are: the improvement of evacuation information and instructions to passengers, taking into account non English or French speakers and human behaviour in stressful situations; improved communications between the control centre and the chef de train (guard); and reducing the time it takes to isolate the overhead cable power supply so that firefighters can safely tackle a blaze more rapidly.
Other recommendations include: reviewing the tunnel’s supplementary ventilation system to limit the development of a fire; examining the feasibility of a system to pinpoint the location and progress of a fire so it can be fought more effectively; and looking at the potential of low level escape lighting to help evacuation near cross-passages.
Increased risk of fire
The report concludes that as the incident in 2008 was the third major fire on a freight shuttle since the tunnel was opened, the risk of a fire starting is higher than was first thought when the tunnel opened. It therefore recommends that the whole strategy of a ‘controlled stop’ needs to be re-examined and alternative strategies assessed.
For its part, Eurotunnel had already been testing new fire protection measures prior to the publication of the report. If approved, they will include two 870m long water mist stations in each of the tunnel’s two main bores. In the event of a fire, the train would continue to the nearest water mist station, located approximately one third and two thirds along each bore. The suppression system would then be activated, while lorry drivers in the ‘passenger’ car of the train are evacuated into the service tunnel via the existing cross passages.
The concept was tested in April, and Eurotunnel is now installing the first pilot water mist station in the Channel Tunnel. Subject to full scale testing and approvals, the systems are expected to be rolled out during the course of 2011.