Channel tunnel evacuation opens way to holiday traffic: Eurotunnel expected to apply for operating licence after successful passenger exercise. Steve Boggan reports

THE CHANNEL tunnel could be open to holiday traffic within a month, following a successful safety exercise yesterday in which 350 passengers were evacuated from a train 2.5 miles out to sea.

Alain Bertrand, Eurotunnel's chief operating officer, said the company planned to apply for a licence to operate its tourist shuttle service by the end of the week. 'If we are granted our licence, I would expect to be running one train every two hours by the middle of August,' he said. 'By October, I would like to see a turn-up- and-go service three times an hour during peak periods.'

The first services will be for Eurotunnel shareholders and by invitation, but the public will be able to board the trains within a couple of months. Eurotunnel also expects its heavy goods freight service - which already has its operating licence from the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority - to be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week from 25 July.

The operation yesterday was an important step in giving the company the confidence to apply for its licence. It involved taking 100 cars and 350 passengers, mainly employees of Eurotunnel and their relatives, from the terminal at Coquelles near Calais and staging an 'incident' in the tunnel. It was the first time so many passengers and cars had used the shuttle service. Two and a half miles from the UK side, the train was stopped and passengers were told to evacuate into the service tunnel that runs between the two rail tunnels. Under Eurotunnel's operating rules, it had to get all passengers above ground within 90 minutes of the decision to evacuate. That involved sending a train along the parallel track, sealing off the tunnel with the stricken train and whisking the passengers away.

The operation was completed with 15 minutes to spare, but there were obvious teething problems, due mainly to the inexperience of staff. The train was stationary for 25 minutes before a decision was made to evacuate and then it took 11 minutes to get all passengers off, mainly because a computer fault meant they were all directed to just one exit.

Patricia Page, whose husband works in the Eurotunnel contracts department, said: 'I did feel that once something happened, we were left waiting and were not given enough information. And once they got us moving it took a long time to get off the train. We were all calm because it was a test, but it could be more difficult if there was a fire.'

Roger Lejuez, chairman of the Anglo-French safety committee, was also concerned about the delays and lack of information. 'The first message to passengers came five minutes after stopping and then another five minutes went by,' he said. 'Then a long time, 15 minutes, elapsed which was not reassuring. It was too long a time without information.'

Mr Bertrand admitted there were problems with communication that would be improved, but he was satisfied all technical aspects of the operation went well.

Ambulance and fire crews from Dover were on the scene within 10 minutes via the service tunnel. Kevin McAuley, a paramedic, said: 'I was very much impressed by the operation. Everything was where it was supposed to be and at the right time.'

Kent station site, page 25