Channel Tunnel fire no accident

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Eurotunnel last night confirmed that the 1996 Channel Tunnel fire, which caused pounds 200m damage, was deliberate. Its lawyers had received information from the investigating judge that any "accidental causes linked to the equipment and installations have been ruled out by the experts. This makes a malicious act the most likely cause".

Patrick Ponsolle, Eurotunnel chairman, said the conclusions did not surprise him; the company maintained its legal claim against "those responsible". The fire, on a lorry on a Shuttle wagon, shut one of the two tracks and disrupted passenger and freight traffic for months.

Five wagons and 15 lorries were destroyed by the blaze, which also put eight drivers in hospital. The conclusion that foul play was the cause was made in an expert's report sent last week to the French judge heading the inquiry into the fire in November 1996. Eurotunnel ran a restricted service after the fire, losing millions of pounds.

Gerald Lesigne, prosecutor in charge of the case, said: "The judge has ordered a number of investigations ... that have not yet pinpointed the perpetrator or perpetrators."

New safety standards were set after the fire exposed shortcomings in procedures. Eurotunnel wanted less intervention from health and safety authorities, but the fire made this more difficult to argue.

In January the company requested that limits on the number of lorries it can carry on its HGV trains to be lifted. The requirement was one of a package of conditions laid down by the Anglo-French Intergovernmental Commission - which regulates tunnel safety - before it would allow lorries through again. The request was turned down. In the fire, smoke from a blazing lorry engulfed the club car, nearly choking those inside before they were rescued.