A tragedy waiting to happen

FIRES in tunnels are rare. Catastrophic fires such as that under the Alps last week are even rarer. The Mont Blanc authorities will be asking what they could have done, for, however rare such events, the engineer's job is to predict scenarios and design systems to cope.

Certainly lessons are being learnt after the Channel Tunnel blaze in 1996. Eurotunnel paid a high price in lost revenue while it repaired the damaged tunnel. It was fortunate that no one was killed, and that the tunnel was reparable. It now scrutinises everything going into the Chunnel, has revamped its emergency procedures, and plans to introduce sophisticated and expensive fire suppression systems on its shuttles. Those in charge at Mont Blanc will be going through a similar analysis and asking engineers to work out what went wrong.

At just over seven miles, the Mont Blanc is a long tunnel; the world's longest road tunnel, the St Gotthards in Switzerland, is just three miles longer. When Mont Blanc opened in 1965 it was an amazing structure. It still is; certainly the amount of traffic using it is significantly higher than it was designed to carry.

But its age means it does not have many of the safety features now considered mandatory. It has no separate service tunnel, relying instead on refuge bays every 300m. It is not impossible to make older structures such as this much safer, at a price. Containing a fire quickly is the key. Poor communications and emergency procedures allowed the Chunnel fire to escalate; Mont Blanc appears to have been no different.

Antony Oliver is news editor of `New Civil Engineer'

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