Road tunnel disasters make the case for rail

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The Independent Online

Forty people lost their lives in the Mont Blanc tunnel fire two years ago; several dozen may have been killed in the St Gotthard tunnel this week. Two of the major road routes between northern and southern Europe are now closed, and the cost of the two disasters will run into millions of pounds.

Forty people lost their lives in the Mont Blanc tunnel fire two years ago; several dozen may have been killed in the St Gotthard tunnel this week. Two of the major road routes between northern and southern Europe are now closed, and the cost of the two disasters will run into millions of pounds.

The burden on the other, already overused, trans-Alpine routes will increase. Many goods will now have to be transported by more roundabout routes, with all the attendant pollution and risk of accident that will entail. Austria is rightly resisting pressure to relax environmental controls on its own Brenner Pass to allow more commercial traffic through.

Yet just two lorries, it seems, triggered these twin catastrophes. While compounded by inadequate alarm systems and an unmanned security post, the Mont Blanc fire apparently started in a consignment of flour and margarine. First reports of this week's fire say that it resulted from a collision caused when one lorry, laden with used tyres, suffered a blow-out and ran out of control.

In theory, lorries carrying flammable loads were banned from both tunnels, but there was neither the time nor the manpower for every lorry's cargo to be checked. Nor would even punitive fines be sufficient to stop some hauliers bending the rules when time and profits are at stake. Northern Italy represents one of the richest markets in the European Union; the two tunnel fires now make it one of the more difficult to reach by any direct route.

The scandal is that there are so few alternatives. More than twice as much freight currently crosses the Alps by road than by rail. While greater use of rail should be encouraged, capacity is nowhere near enough.

For the long term, two new rail routes are planned: one on the heavily travelled route between Lyon and Turin; the other to enhance capacity on the Brenner. So far only the first of these has been given the go-ahead by the countries concerned and will not be complete before 2015.

The St Gotthard accident should galvanise the European Commission and the governments concerned – Switzerland included – to accelerate these projects as a matter of urgency and simultaneously to divert as much freight as possible from the road tunnels and have it carried either in the open, or – preferably – by rail.

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