Green light for Eurotunnel freight trains

Firemen's union condemns `dangerous decision' six months after pounds 30m blaze
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The Independent Online
Eurotunnel has been given the go-ahead to resume freight shuttle services through the Channel Tunnel, six months after they were suspended following last November's fire which injured eight passengers.

The tunnel's ruling body - the Anglo-French Intergovernmental Commission - yesterday approved Eurotunnel's proposals to resume services.

The fire broke out in a lorry on a Le Shuttle freight train, on the night of 18 November 1996, taking 29 lorries, 31 passengers and three shuttle crew members from France to England. Eight people were treated for smoke inhalation in the service tunnel before being taken to hospital.

Some experts blamed the open-sided freight carriages for the severity of the blaze, but Eurotunnel has not been ordered to replace them.

The decision delighted the company which said the move comes "after a lengthy series of in-depth studies and discussions with the Safety Authority and the IGC on all aspects of the safe transport of HGVs through the Channel Tunnel".

"The 36 recommendations from the Safety Authority have been implemented or are in hand. The 83 improvements to procedures, equipment and training which Eurotunnel decided to implement and which were announced on 3 April have already been implemented or are in hand," the company said.

However, the IGC's decision sparked criticism from the Fire Brigades Union which is worried about the continued use of open-sided carriages. It was, the union's spokesman, Ken Cameron, said, "an extremely dangerous decision", putting "profit before safety".

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, had asked Eurotunnel to reappraise the wagon design, although he was prepared to let them get on with their services. He welcomed the reopening yesterday, saying: "I am satisfied that it is the IGC's judgment that Eurotunnel have met the CTSA's requirements for immediate actions on safety, prior to restart of HGV shuttles. All those involved need to learn from the lessons that have come out of this.

"I am pleased that the Eurotunnel has met my requirements to provide a timetable to implement the recommendations of the CTSA's report. This is an extremely important step towards ensuring that such an incident does not happen again," Mr Prescott added.

Eurotunnel, sharply criticised in a report last week on the fire, had been hoping to get the go-ahead after a meeting of the commission last Thursday. Instead it had to wait until yesterday. The company added last night: "Eurotunnel will spare no effort during the coming months and years to improve safety of its services," it continued.

"Even if absolute safety is an impossibility, Eurotunnel is determined to look for constant improvements in its safety measures. In particular Eurotunnel has started studies on numerous early fire fighting systems."

Eurotunnel, which completed pounds 38m repair work in the damaged section of tunnel last week, said it would start a programme of freight shuttles without passengers in the next few days when a series of tests and checks would be carried out.

At the end of the trial period, Eurotunnel will start commercial trials with invited non-paying passengers and increase the frequency of trains.

The start of services with paying passengers is planned for 15 June.