Ferries all at sea over new safety rules

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The Independent Online
British ferries may be scrapped, forced to cut the number of passengers they can carry or need large-scale work to meet tough new safety standards issued next month by the Government.

Officials from the Marine Safety Agency, which certifies ships, have completed a review of all ferries sailing from the UK and have identified those craft most in need of work to meet the Government's targets.

The list contains vessels used by P&O, Stena and Sea France. Safety inspectors will not publish the full timetable of work required by the Government until 1 April.

The move comes exactly 10 years after the Herald of Free Enterprise, a roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) ferry owned by P&O, capsized as it left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the way to Dover, killing 194 men, women and children. The Herald of Free Enterprise sank in a storm off the Coast of West Africa while being towed to Thailand in the early 1990s.

The new safety measures go further than the existing 1990 world survivability standards. They will require UK-operating ro-ro ferries to be able to cope with 50cm of water entering the car deck and stay afloat if holed beneath the waterline. The improvements will cost ferry firms millions of pounds.

Many older vessels could meet the higher standards by attaching "buoyancy blisters" to their hulls or erecting bulkheads on their car decks. The merger between the largest ferry operators, P&O and Stena, which has yet to be cleared by the Government, would also allow older ships to be retired from passenger service and save them from an expensive refit.

Other ships can delay their time in dry dock by reducing the numbers they carry. The Pride of Cherbourg, owned by P&O, is pencilled in to be overhauled this autumn. The company could avoid this by increasing the cargo space and halving the number of passengers - and put off its upgrade until 2001.

Other ships set to be overhauled this autumn include Sea France's Matisse and P&O's Pride of Hampshire. Next year would see some newer ships - like P&O's Pride of Suffolk - upgraded.

A spokesman for P&O European Ferries said: "We will do whatever is necessary to comply with the new regulations."

Passenger groups said more could be done sooner. The Consumers' Association called for the Government to speed up the new regulations so all ships are modified by spring 1998.

The association added that industry standards require a typical cross- Channel ferry to be evacuated within 30 minutes. Yet it took 65 minutes for 842 volunteers to be evacuated in a government test in Dover.

The Herald Families Association, which campaigned to raise shipping safety standards, is disbanding in the light of the new regulations. "Time does not heal the pain but we have felt that by doing something we have helped ease things for ourselves," said the association's deputy chairman, Peter Spooner, whose son was killed in the disaster.