French car ferries may face UK safety ban

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

French roll-on roll-off ferries may be banned from British ports because France is refusing to agree to higher safety standards drawn up in the wake of the Estonia disaster.

The negotiations within the International Maritime Organisation, which is meeting in London throughout this week, are deadlocked over the refusal of the French to agree to the imposition of new safety designs on ferry operators.

The British, along with a group of six north European nations - Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden - want to ensure disasters, like those of the Estonia and the Herald of Free Enterprise, are not repeated by redesigning ferries which can survive with up to 50cms of water in the car deck. This would be in addition to the existing Safety of Life at Sea 90 (Solas 90) standards imposed following the Herald disaster in 1987, in which nearly 200 people died.

But, according to a source close to the British negotiating team, the French "are taking a very negative attitude towards improved standards". The French are worried that any new international standards would also be imposed on ferries operating in the Mediterranean where they claim the sea is calmer. The new standards were drawn up by an IMO committee of experts following the sinking of the Estonia a year ago, in which 900 people lost their lives.

The meeting is continuing until next Wednesday when there will be a signing ceremony and Bill O'Neill, the IMO's Canadian secretary-general, said that he wants full international agreement and not just a partial deal.

Currently, the negotiations are deadlocked because the British want the new standards imposed on all ferries operating to and from the United Kingdom, while the French want their ferries exempt.

If the French continue to refuse to agree to the new standard, ministers have intimated that French ferries could be banned. A compromise, which the British government is trying to avoid, might involve allowing the European Commission to set new safety rules.

The current Solas 90 standard merely says that ships should be able to survive a certain level of damage following a collision in seas with waves of a maximum height of 1.5 metres.

The problem with roll-on roll-off ferries is that once water gets on to the car deck, which stretches throughout the whole length of the boat, it starts swilling about, causing the ship to capsize. In the Herald disaster, it was estimated that the ship keeled on to its side within 90 seconds of water getting on to the car deck.