Calls for Chunnel to remain closed

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The Independent Online
The Channel Tunnel remains closed as its operators struggle to persuade safety chiefs to give the green light to a reopening. The bi-national tunnel safety authority refused yesterday, instead asking Eurotunnel to come up with more information about the dramatic fire on a freight shuttle train on Monday night.

The company had said earlier that it planned to start freight services "within a few hours". But a Kent firefighter who saw the extent of the damage in the tunnel yesterday said that the first layer of the tunnel lining had come away and metal reinforcements were visible along a 100m stretch. "In some areas you can see the chalk," he said. Electricity cables in the area were completely burnt out. He said that the driver and passengers were "very lucky to get out".

He believed it would be some time before the company would be able to remove the five carriages which formed the heart of the fire. "People have been told not to talk to the press on or off duty and a lot of people are frightened for their jobs."

The Fire Brigades Union said that the Channel link should only come into operation when both tunnels were fully functional. The union understood that senior firefighters in Kent agreed with that policy.

Ken Cameron, general secretary of the FBU, suggested tht the design of the car trains should be reviewd, and called for closed freight wagons. "We have got to get safety right."

The French rail operator SNCF also ruled out any resumption of services before Monday.

The continued delay places the financial future of Eurotunnel in jeopardy as it will lose a million pounds a day in revenue and, possibly more importantly, public confidence in the project. There were also fears that smoke generated by the fire in the northbound tunnel might have also have damaged signalling and controls on the southbound side. The fire occurred near one of the tunnel's two crossover points and it is thought that smoke could have penetrated onto the other line, but Eurotunnel refused to comment on the extent of damage last night apart from calling it "severe".

John Whitwell, deputy secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said that the tunnel was lined with 290mm thick concrete, heavily reinforced with steel, and that this will have fallen off. He said that a similar fire in the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark had caused extensive damage and much cracking of concrete. The worst problem would be cleaning off the soot: "The soot will cake on conductors and signalling equipment, which will take a very long time to clean off." He said it was likely that the northbound tunnel would take months to repair.

While the undamaged part of the train has been taken out at the Folkestone end, the wrecked section of 14 wagons will be taken out in France today after the wheels have been separated from the rails to which they have become welded.

The company may attempt to take it out at night to avoid the world's cameras focusing on the sight of charred and mangled wreckage which cause great embarrassment to the troubled company.