Queen of troubles comes under MPs' scrutiny

From a shipyard accident that claimed 15 lives to sea sickness and failed safety tests, the 'Queen Mary 2' appears to be almost cursed. Charles Arthur and Colin Brown examine the storm engulfing the world's largest passenger liner

The statistics are awe-inspiring. It is the largest, tallest, widest, heaviest passenger liner ever built. The £550m construction bill for the Queen Mary 2 created a ship 345m long and 74m high (with 62m above the water), weighing 150,000 tonnes, and with 18 decks - 14 of them for passengers. It has five swimming pools, 14 restaurants, 24 massage parlours, a 1,094-seat theatre, 1,253 crew, a casino, a disco, a health spa, an art gallery, and even a planetarium - perhaps for any of the 2,620 passengers who want an annotated version of what they can see on deck at night.

But the designers and shipbuilders have discovered that besides the rigours of the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans, the new Queen Mary must also face another challenge: a sea of troubles.

Redundancies and shipyard accidents overshadowed its construction, while grumblings among the crew, bouts of seasickness among passengers and concerns over fire safety have provided setbacks since its launch.

But the Queen Mary 2 may be about to sail into the considerably choppier waters of Westminster. The Independent has learnt that the ship's safety record has been brought to the scrutiny of MPs.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, has questioned ministers over the decision by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), to allow the ship to sail in June while investigations into its safety were still being carried out.

Mrs Dunwoody's call for a further investigation could provide another difficult manoeuvre for those seeking to steer the giant vessel into calmer waters.

The saga began even before the ship sailed from its berth at the French port of Saint-Nazaire in December last year. In 2000, 1,300 workers at Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Belfast were made redundant after the company failed to win the contract to build the superliner. Then last November, 15 people died and 32 were injured at the French shipyard while waiting on a packed gangway connecting the ship to the harbour: it collapsed as more than 50 stood on it waiting for a pre-launch visit.

The problems continued with the maiden voyage from Southampton on 12 January - which began 90 minutes late due to slow loading of luggage (each item was X-rayed because of fears of a terrorist attack). It immediately ran into stormy seas in the Bay of Biscay, with many passengers and crew, and also the singer Shirley Bassey, succumbing to seasickness.

By the time it got to Fort Lauderdale in Florida, disembarking American passengers were complaining about shoddy service and even shoddy fellow-passengers who, one claimed, threatened to turn the ship into "a setting of proletarian squalor". There was said to be discontent among the crew, unhappy about their long hours and comparatively low wages. Cunard, the ship's owner, denies this.

But it seemed as though things were beginning to work out. Then on 24 June, Britain's MCA, acting on a tip-off, sent surveyors to the ship who cut out pieces of the fascia under the sink in a bathroom, and also from the wall inside the shower closure.

They announced that some of the panels, used in the 900-odd stateroom bathrooms, failed fire safety tests - and required the fitting of extra smoke detectors and increased fire patrols. Cunard added to that the extension of cabin sprinklers into the offending bathrooms, and longer-term, the replacement of the front panels of the units.

But that failure has brought the ship, and Cunard, to the scrutiny of MPs - who are asking ministers how it came to be passed as safe to sail.

After Mrs Dunwoody's intervention, David Jamieson, the Transport minister, responded: "The agency has now started a further investigation into the products used in the bathroom units and its original testing and certification. In the meantime, additional safety measures have been introduced onboard the Queen Mary 2."

But Mrs Dunwoody said an investigation into the original survey and certification of seaworthiness in January was needed. "I think it is very strange," she said. "I don't regard it as very satisfactory that these investigations are being completed while the ship is at sea," she said.

A spokesman for the MCA said the ship was allowed to sail despite the June discoveries because the agency was satisfied there was no risk to safety. "We are not concerned about the safety of these materials - one is under a sink and the other in the shower," he said. "There is no particular danger. This is a very low-risk wet area."

Carnival, the company which owns Cunard, said that the areas did not require certification in the first place, but added: "We are not embarrassed by this. A company's reputation is based on how it deals with problems that can arise."

Yet the tangled history of those flawed panels reveals the globe-spanning complexity now involved in trying to produce a world-beating liner. The ship was built in a French shipyard. But the contractor fitting the bathrooms subcontracted to a Polish company, which used resins that turned out not to meet international standards for shipborne products. And that company has gone out of business, meaning the resins' precise formula, and resistance to fire, remains unclear.

But a much bigger question lingers over the Queen Mary 2, which is simply: is it the wrong ship at the wrong time?

Cunard describes it as a liner - as opposed to a cruise ship. It can achieve 30 knots, as fast as its ageing sibling, the Queen Elizabeth 2, while being much bigger. However the market for ocean-going liners - as opposed to cruises, which seek out pleasant weather and calm seas on circular voyages - is not necessarily thriving. The ocean liner business essentially collapsed in the 1960s, after nearly a century when they were the principal means of travelling between continents. The cause of the decline: aircraft. Air travel is still going strong, although luxury travel is not doing well; British Airways killed off Concorde because it could not attract the well-heeled business travellers prepared to spend thousands of pounds to get across the Atlantic just a few hours faster. The idea of travelling by ship, even the largest, seems out of step.

Cunard insists there is demand for the Queen Mary 2. Indeed, cruises are big business: next year an estimated 25 million passengers will take a shipboard holiday, and cruises are the fastest-expanding sector of the travel market, because you only need to pack and unpack once, and you take the resort with you while you sightsee. But the Queen Mary 2 may have hit the point at which "big" becomes "too big". For example, among the stops on its many itineraries is the Caribbean island of St Thomas - where it is too large to dock; instead, passengers have to go ashore in tenders. That problem has dogged it from the moment it was meant to get wet, as the Saint-Nazaire dock required extra dredging to make it deep enough before the ship could be floated.

And the number of proper ocean-going liners, as opposed to comfortable cruise ships, is not growing. Cunard was bought in 2000 by Carnival Corporation, which also now owns P&O. At that time Cunard had only five passenger ships, two of which (the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Caronia) were more than 30 years old. Micky Arison, the president of Carnival, said he took over Cunard in order to create a new, classic transatlantic liner like the QE2. "I travelled on QE2 and was amazed to see crowds lining the dock as we approach port," he told the website cruisecritic.com. "I asked the captain if some special event was going on and he said 'well yes - QE2 is arriving' ... And I started wondering if we could recreate that for the 21st century."

But it may be that the answer is - no. The Queen Mary 2 could instead find its role as a sort of floating palace. It has been chartered, along with seven others, by the Olympic organising committee to house thousands of VIPs at berth off Piraeus. There, it will be a natural target for terrorists, at least in the minds of security chiefs recalling al-Qa'ida's successes against the US Navy, including the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole. That was anchored in the port of Yemen when terrorists blew up an explosives-laden boat next to the ship; 17 American sailors were killed. But the Queen Mary 2 is unlikely to suffer any such fate: its very size means it is constantly monitored by coastguards. And indeed, the iceberg that saw off its old sister, the Titanic, would trouble it but probably not sink it; the modern ship is three times larger than that "unsinkable" one.

But instead it may find itself weighed down by other problems: the cost of upkeep, the reluctance of passengers to pay thousands of pounds to make a trip that could be done by air, and of course the infelicities of fire regulations. For the one thing the Queen Mary 2 is not allowed to use which its predecessors did is the material that gave so many of them their special feeling: wood. Its flammability means it is banned from almost all of the ship - and instead it is recreated with 21st-century resins.

A GIANT OF THE SEAS

* At a cost of over £400m, the 'Queen Mary' is the most expensive cruise ship ever

* At 345m, her length equals 41 double-decker buses

* A crew member attends almost every two passengers

* Her power room could light all of Southampton

* She is the same height as a 23-storey building - 72m

* She has enough space for 2,620 passengers, and three-quarters of the cabins have private balconies

* Her whistle is audible 10 miles away

* She boasts the largest library at sea, 10 restaurants, health spa and planetarium

* Over 40 years, she will travel the equivalent of 12 times to the moon and back

Yvonne Gavan

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