Executives told to find safe wagon designs

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The Independent Online
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has ordered Eurotunnel's executives to produce new designs for the open-sided freight wagons involved in November's Channel Tunnel fire.

In a meeting evening, described as "frank", Mr Prescott, who has overall responsibility for transport, told Eurotunnel's managers he would like it to look again at advances in technology that could allow the wagons to be enclosed.

Options under consideration include using light but rigid plastic sheets or metal shutters to enclose the wagons.Officials stressed this would not be a "complete overhaul" of the freight vehicles used but a "re-appraisal taking into account the advances in technology". They said Mr Prescott's demands did not undermine decisions made by the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, which approved the wagon's design in 1993.

Another proposal, suggested by civil servants, is that lorry drivers are carried on a separate train to their loads, which would impose further costs on Eurotunnel, but allow it to continue using the open-sided wagons

Mr Prescott cannot force the executives to change the design, but he made it clear a review was required and any failure to produce plans would not endear the debt-ridden company to the new administration.

Although the Deputy Prime Minister did not set a date when the company should produce new designs, civil servants said the Mr Prescott wanted the company to "rapidly implement a new research programme". Eurotunnel hopes to restart its lucrative freight service by the middle of next month, despite concerns over the present design of the freight wagons by senior firefighters.

Experts say the blaze spread so quickly from truck to truck only because of the absence of fire-protection barriers between the wagons, and condemned their design as "an accident waiting to happen". A report into the cause of the fire by a French judge is to be issued this week and is expected to show it was started deliberately.

The company had wanted to discuss a 40-year extension to the 65-year licence under which it operates the Channel Tunnel. But Mr Prescott has taken a tough line on safety, backing the Government's safety-authority attack on the "fundamental weaknesses" in the company's emergency procedures.

The CTSA is also meeting this week to consider Eurotunnel's request to run empty freight services through the Channel Tunnel but officials say this will be rebuffed because "the company has not fully complied with the safety authority's requests".

Eurotunnel's safety procedures were criticised in the official report on the fire, in which 30 people were injured. The report, published last week, made 36 recommendations for improving safety, all of which the company has promised to implement. However, the report fell short of firefighters' demands that the lattice-sided wagons should be banned.