Fire raises Channel Tunnel fears

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The Independent Online
The start of commercial car services through the Channel Tunnel will be further delayed after a fire on a shuttle train at the Folkestone terminal left two firemen needing hospital treatment for heat exhaustion.

No passengers were injured, but it remained unclear last night whether the emergency equipment installed in the trains functioned properly. The quickest way of putting out fires - releasing halon gas stored in canisters in the trains' floors - was not used. Instead, four firemen using breathing apparatus had to enter the stricken carriage in conditions described by Kent fire brigade as ''extremely hot''.

The fire also raises questions about passengers travelling in the trains with their cars. On ferries, passengers are segregated from the car deck.

The fire began around 10am on the 10.09 train to Calais, which had 232 passengers and 66 cars aboard, and was not put out until 10.40am. Passengers were evacuated on to the station platform through emergency doors in the carriage.

The engine of a Ford Escort started smoking as the driver was driving through the upper part of the train. The car ''went up like a torch'', according to a Eurotunnel spokesman, and a second car, the only other in the carriage, was slightly damaged. Kent Fire Brigade said the fire caused extensive damage, but the ''structural integrity of the carriage was not breached''.

John Noulton, Eurotunnel's public affairs director, said: ''The halon gas could not be used because the doors between the carriages were not down and it can only be released when they are down.'' He said he thought that it took a couple of minutes to close the doors and by then the fire brigade had arrived. ''We knew by the law of averages that we would get a fire. We were well prepared for it,'' he said.

Each of Le Shuttle's 12 carriages are designed to be separated by doors which can resist a blaze for 30 minutes, but the doors had not been lowered as preparations for departure had not been completed.

One of the passengers, Duncan Saunders, from Folkestone, claimed the train's crew did not reach them for five minutes and that passengers were not told that there was a fire on board. He said: ''We went to the front of the train and basically there wasn't any way we could get out. The staff turned up after about five minutes and led us back where we had come from. It was a dead end - we couldn't get out.''

It was the first fire on a Channel Tunnel train and it could not have come at a worse time for Eurotunnel, which owns the tunnel and operates Le Shuttle services between Folkestone and Calais, as the company had been hoping to receive its operating certificate for the Le Shuttle tourist trains ''any day now''. The company has been running an ''invitation-only'' service since October in preparation for a full launch this month.

A spokesman for the international commission responsible for safety in the tunnel said last night it will now want to examine the report by Kent Fire Brigade into the fire before granting the operating certificate. The company has been able to operate its invitation-only service under a temporary certificate.

This is the latest in a lengthy series of delays to the full opening of the tunnel. Eurotunnel hoped to have tourist shuttles running last January and even printed a brochure for this year's service. Hold-ups in safety checks and a series of minor problems have led to almost a year's delay.

The fire was the second mishap yesterday for Eurotunnel - a freight shuttle carrying 28 lorries broke down early yesterday when overhead wiring became entangled with the engine's power supply.

Taylor Woodrow quits, page 16

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