Comment: Travel, like life, is risky

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The Independent Online
Is the Channel Tunnel safe? The question was asked in headlines last week after the freight train fire 150ft beneath the sea bed. One answer is that nothing is safe. About 3,600 people die in road accidents in this country every year. There is current concern about the safety of passenger aircraft following a spate of crashes in the United States. As for ferries, it is only 10 years since 193 people died outside Zeebrugge aboard the Herald of Free Enterprise, only six since 180 burned to death aboard the Scandinavian Star outside Oslo, and only two since 900 drowned in the Estonia. And in case you think it is safer to stay at home, remember that domestic accidents are the biggest killers of all, claiming 4,000 lives in this country every year. Beside these figures, the casualties last week were light indeed: of the 34 people aboard the train 19 required hospital treatment, mostly for smoke inhalation, and of those six were kept in overnight, to be discharged the next morning. The point of these comparisons is not to make light of what was a very frightening experience but to show that everything in life, even doing nothing, carries an element of risk, and a single accident does not necessarily justify rethinking our assumptions about safe ways to travel.

The fire is certainly an important event. This is not a tried-and-tested transport system like a London Underground line or the Boeing 747. Until last week the Channel Tunnel safety systems had never been tested in a real emergency, so there is much to be learned. Already some of the circumstances of the fire are giving cause for concern. The Kent fire service feels that its long-standing objection to the use of lattice-sided wagons for transporting lorries has been vindicated. It has argued that these allow the flames to be fanned when a fire has broken out in a moving train, and that they hinder fire-fighting because the blaze cannot be contained. The evidence suggests that both of these effects occurred on Monday night. Eurotunnel has admitted that two of its three safety procedures failed to function. Once the existence of the fire was established the train would ideally have completed its journey through the tunnel, which would have allowed the fire to be tackled in the open air on the British side. Instead, it stopped. The next preferred option was to de-couple the locomotive and the "club car", with all the passengers and crew on board, from the burning freight wagons. Due to a power failure caused by the fire, this also proved impossible.

To say that these matters must now be investigated, however, is not to say that until we have the answers, and until any faults are corrected, we must regard the Channel Tunnel as fundamentally untrustworthy. Eurotunnel is right to point out that nobody was killed and that this was more than a matter of luck. If a "blow-torch" effect developed in the lattice-sided wagons, we should remember that there was nobody in them, and for the good reason that nobody is allowed in them. The passengers were together at the front of the train, as regulations require, and they appear to have been led through well-rehearsed fire procedures by competent staff. The safety systems worked sufficiently well to ensure that, despite the smoke and the intensity of the blaze further back on the train, everybody was successfully evacuated through a secure service tunnel which was built, at enormous expense, with that express purpose in mind.

Even after last Monday we have no reason to believe that the Channel Tunnel is not as safe as the ferries - or safer. During the planning and construction, the Safety Authority placed heavy demands on Eurotunnel. There is, for example, a control box at both ends of the line, even though one would be normal. Shuttle trains have two locomotives, although one would be sufficient to do the job. This vigilance, which greatly increased the cost of the tunnel, owed much to the atmosphere of alarm created by the Zeebrugge disaster. It is ironic that the main ferry operators, to which travellers may now be tempted to turn, have yet to implement one of the most important recommendations to arise from that disaster: the installation of transverse bulkheads in older ships to prevent water in the car deck from rapidly capsizing the vessel. That fact, as much as last week's fire, should weigh on our minds when we consider the relative safety of ferry and tunnel.