All ferries operating in British waters will, by 2000, have to be fitted with special barriers on the car decks to prevent capsizing.
Yesterday, speaking in the wake of the grounding of the cross-channel ferry Stena Challenger outside Calais on Tuesday with 250 people on board, Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, said that if necessary Britain and a group of its neighbours would go it alone in implementing higher safety standards on ferries operating in European waters.
Next month, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) meets to put the final touches on its report on the Estonia disaster a year ago in which 900 people died.
The IMO is likely to recommend measures to ensure that if the hull is holed, the car ferries stay upright long enough for passengers to be evacuated safely. This will mean fitting barriers, known as "transverse bulkheads", which are considered the most effective way to prevent disastrously rapid capsizing when water floods into the car deck - as happened in the Estonia and the Herald of Free Enterprise disasters.
The bulkheads would be lowered after loading in order to create several separate spaces on the car decks. Without them, even a small amount of water swilling from side to side can cause rapid capsizing.
While there are lingering doubts as to whether all the IMO countries will agree to the new standards when the final decision is made at its conference in November, Britain and most of Europe will ensure that these standards are introduced as quickly as possible.
Sir George said yesterday: "If agreement cannot be reached in the IMO this autumn, then I shall want to go ahead in any case with our European neighbours." He stressed that the measures would apply to any ferries operating in British waters.
According to Walter Welch, director of maritime services at the Chamber of Shipping, the introduction of the bulkheads would have to be phased in to allow the work to be carried out without disrupting services. He said companies would have four years to fit them.
Previously, the ferry companies have dragged their feet over introducing improvements in safety and resisted transverse bulkheads on the grounds of cost and disruption to services, even though they would have prevented the Herald disaster in which 193 people died in 1987.
Now, however, the ferry companies privately admit that the bulkheads, costing around pounds 1m per ferry, are inevitable. Although they used to argue that the barriers would seriously disrupt operations, they now say they would pose few problems.
Even now, many ferries have not met the Safety of Lives at Sea (Solas) standards agreed after the Herald disaster. Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, said 27 ferries operating in British waters would not meet standards for 9 years and another 18 for 12 years.
n The crew of the Stena Challenger was placed on standby last night to go back into service. The owners, Stena Sealink, hope that within the next 36 hours the ferry - which is in dry dock in Dunkirk, France, being inspected for damage - will be allowed to resume sailings.
The ship will have a new master at the helm. The present captain has been given temporary compassionate leave.