Car ferry safety bid fails to win approval

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Transport Correspondent

Britain yesterday failed in its bid to strengthen worldwide safety standards on roll-on/roll-off ferries after an International Maritime Organisation meeting broke up without reaching an agreement over new international standards.

Instead, the IMO said that countries particularly concerned about passenger safety on ships would be allowed to reach joint agreements with countries to whom they are linked by ferry services.

The result of the week-long negotiations represent a double failure for the Government, which had first sought a complete international agreement, and then had sought a regional agreement as a fall-back position. Now Britain will be forced to thrash out individual agreements with each country with which it operates ferries.

Britain's move had been blocked by France and other southern European countries, which did not want the new "Safety of Life At Sea 90 plus 50 centimetres standard" adopted internationally as it would have affected ships in the Mediterranean, which they claim is less dangerous than the North Sea and English Channel.

The new "Solas" standard would have required ships to survive a collision or other incident which allowed 50 centimetres of water on to the car deck. Previous disasters with ro-ro ferries have been caused by relative small amounts of water getting on to car decks and causing ships to capsize.

The shipping minister, Lord Goschen, portrayed the meeting as a "first step to higher standards" but the deal fails to address the issues raised by the disasters to the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia. Britain had wanted the new standard to be imposed on all ships by the end of 1999 but this now seems impossible as further talks will be required.