Eurotunnel admits to delays in fire rescue

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The Independent Online
Eurotunnel, the operator of train services through the Channel Tunnel, will spend more than pounds 20m installing firefighting equipment and updating safety procedures after admitting yesterday that there were "avoidable delays" in evacuating passengers from a blazing train in November.

The company said it was acting on the findings of an internal inquiry into the fire. Thirty- four people were rescued by firemen from the blaze, which destroyed 125 lorry wagons and melted tracks and signalling.

"We have, of course, learned lessons from this incident," said Patrick Ponsolle, Eurotunnel's French co-chairman. "We have already implemented a number of important changes in procedures, equipment, manning levels and training to improve further the protection of passengers, employees and the tunnel itself."

The cause of the fire, which cost the company pounds 200m in repairs and loss of revenue, is still being investigated by a French magistrate. Eurotunnel yesterday ruled out mechanical failure as a cause. "There are two possibilities. The first is that the fire was caused by a failure of the lorries' equipment. The second was that it was caused by a criminal act," said Mr Ponsolle.

Executives said they planned to reopen Shuttle services by June and would put in place the new safety measures by May. The report recommends passengers are issued with smoke hoods and that the 50km tunnel is lined with water sprinklers.

Also highlighted by the inquiry were a number of failures in emergency procedures. The company said it would spend more than pounds 1m a year to improve staff training. Eurotunnel also admitted the safety of passengers "would be improved if the train was evacuated immediately following a controlled stop". Before yesterday's report, the company had insisted a burning train should race non-stop through the tunnel .

The report also recommended that lorries boarding Eurotunnel's trains should be subject to rigorous inspections. French investigators have centred their inquiries on a lorry wagon carrying Cornflakes.

In an apparent snub to the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, which has to certificate the new procedures, Eurotunnel will not replace its controversial open-sided carriages. Critics claim the design of the wagons would fan the flames of a burning train as it roared through the tunnel. "We do not consider the designs to be unsafe," said Robert Malpas, Eurotunnel's British chairman. Eurotunnel, which has a further 72 wagons of similar design on order, has long argued that the increased weight of a covered wagon and a 44-ton lorry would be too heavy for its tracks.

Executives dismissed claims that Eurotunnel had previously put profits before safety. "We spent pounds 1bn alone on the emergency-service tunnel which saved all those lorry drivers' lives. We are committed to a safe system," said Mr Malpas.

The company is confident its findings will be approved by the Inter-Governmental Commission, staffed by transport civil servants from France, Belgium and Britain, but accepted it might make "minor modifications". "It is unlikely that any decision will be made before the general election," said a company spokesman.

Eurotunnel also accepted that some drivers had refused to use the service until safety had been reviewed. "I am not surprised," said Mr Malpas. "But you only have to see that our tourist traffic leapt 21 per cent last month to know that customers are coming back."