Damaging blow in battle for Channel trade raises new fears over safety fears

Eurotunnel could benefit from ferry accident, says Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
Yesterday's grounding of a cross-Channel ship could not have come at a worst time for the ferry industry.

The ferry companies are locked in a fierce war with the Channel tunnel which has just come into full operation and is battling for market share. Far from reducing their number of ships, the ferry companies have increased them in a seemingly suicidal contest that seems bound to result in massive losses for all concerned.

Already faced with this unexpectedly sharp competition, Eurotunnel, which owns and operates the tunnel, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, having stopped interest payments to its banks last week.

Safety considerations have been a key factor in many people's choice of travel arrangements, and the ferry companies, are still suffering from the effect of disasters such as the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Estonia last year. Most recently, the inadequacy of safety and evacuation procedures was highlighted when the catamaran St Malo ran aground in Jersey and 58 people were injured while being evacuated.

The repercussions of the Estonia in which 900 people died almost exactly a year ago after the bow doors were stoved in by heavy seas, are still being felt. The International Maritime Organisation is due to report in November on the safety of roll-on roll-off ferries and is likely to recommend the fitting of lateral bulkheads to prevent water swilling throughout the car deck, which caused vessels to capsize rapidly.

The industry having long resisted their introduction of bulkheads - even after the Herald disaster when the ship capsized in a matter of minutes resulting in 193 deaths - now accepts they are inevitable and, despite earlier protests, say that they will not slow down operation.

The IMO report may also recommend the addition of spontoons to the outside of ships which are a kind of metal balloon intended to make them more stable.

Currently, ferries have several years to comply with the "Safety of Lives at Sea" 90 regulations, drawn up in the wake of the Herald disaster and which specify that ships must be able to remain upright for 45 minutes after a collision. Most ferries now comply with the rules, which are bound to be updated by the new IMO report.

Eurotunnel has long complained that over stringent safety requirements have led to massive extra costs, deterring people from travelling on what is inherently a safer form of transport. Eurotunnel also complains that while it has had to produce a "safety case" detailing procedures in every imaginable emergency, the ferry companies do not have to do so.