Is sail or rail the wiser route?: Christian Wolmar explains how ferry disasters have imposed stringent safety rules - on the Channel tunnel

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The Independent Online
THE PEOPLE at Eurotunnel are distinctly abashed. They hardly dare think it, let alone say it, but the sinking of the Estonia may be their salvation.

It was a remarkable coincidence that the ship sank just five days before passenger services through the Channel tunnel started operating, and it will surely encourage people to think again about the relative safety of crossing the Channel on the water rather than under it. Many potential travellers who had already got into the fashionable incantation: 'Oh, I would never use the tunnel, it's so frightening' are now saying: 'I'll never go on those ferries again.'

If safety is to be a consideration in choosing the mode of travel, then 'tunnel phobia' seems seriously misplaced. Fatality rates based on distance travelled in the UK for 1979-1988 - years which include disasters such as Clapham and Zeebrugge - show rail to be eight times safer than shipping.

However, because of the difference in their respective histories, ferries and the tunnel face completely different safety regimes. Roll-on roll-off ferries have been developed in the past 50 years from wartime landing craft, and safety legislation has been introduced in stages. Inevitably, as with all transport systems, many improvements have only been introduced as a result of disasters.

Because millions of pounds are tied up in ships and other infrastructure, changes to regulatons are unwelcome. The ferry companies constantly stress that the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster was caused by an operational error which led to the bow doors being left open, rather than the fact that ro-ro ships capsize incredibly easily once even a small amount of water enters the car deck. Therefore the series of 15 measures introduced by the Department of Transport since Zeebrugge largely relate to operational matters; relatively little attention has been paid to the stability of the ships.

Indeed, those measures relating to stability, the Solas 90 regulations, are being phased in between now and 2007 because of ship owners' reluctance to change the structure of existing ships.

BY CONTRAST, the tunnel has begun with a blank sheet. The intergovernmental Safety Authority has, quite rightly, placed onerous safety requirements on Eurotunnel because the system is being built from scratch at a time when the public has come to expect high safety standards. But at times these requirements seem too demanding. Ironically, the Zeebrugge disaster, which occurred just as the safety authority was beginning its work, created a climate in favour of the primacy of safety which has damaged Eurotunnel's chances of commercial viability.

Of course, Eurotunnel itself had commercial considerations. In order to speed up the journey, the company wanted motorists to be allowed to stay with their cars, whereas on the ferries people must leave the car deck. This entailed more onerous safety requirements than if people had been separated from their cars in the tunnel.

'Le Shuttle' was never going to be an exciting experience, but it has been made even less pleasant by the stringent safety requirements. For example, each coach containing 10 cars, five on each deck, is separated by a huge '30 minute' fire door that slides down once you have driven on. The effect is claustrophobic and makes a trip to the toilet - sometimes two carriages away - something of an ordeal, as the passenger has to pass through double doors that are incredibly heavy and stiff. Moreover, they prevent Eurotunnel from providing a trolley service dispensing tea and sandwiches. Eurotunnel says it accepts the need for the barriers but would prefer them to be the type that come down only when a fire alarm goes off.

Uniquely among railways, Eurotunnel has a control box at each end that can operate the whole line. The main one is at Folkestone, while the one in Calais is a back-up, with two staff permanently on duty. The shuttle trains must also have two locomotives each - when one is sufficient to pull the train.

The Safety Authority made Eurotunnel build wind breaks at both terminals: huge walls to prevent coaches being blown over in gusty conditions. They are ugly and give a prison camp atmosphere. Richard Morris, Eurotunnel's safety director, questions their value: 'I do not think that the Safety Authority took into account the effect of the couplings which hold the coaches together when it calculated whether these wind breaks were necessary.'

All these measures result in extra costs. The control box costs pounds 250,000 to staff each year, with two people sitting there permanently with nothing to do. The wind breaks cost pounds 5m and the nine extra locomotives pounds 5m each.

Some of the differences in safety standards are striking for their inconsistency: the tunnel is not allowed to carry whisky or paint in bulk quantities, products which BR carries every day and which instead go through the ferries.

No transport system can deliver the 100 per cent safety we all want. But even if we accept that, risk assessment is a controversial business. Planners differentiate between the value of safety measures by comparing the cost of their implementation with the amount saved in loss of life or injury. That means, of course, placing a price on lives and injuries (the Department of Transport reckons a life is worth around pounds 750,000).

Tim Geyer, of the risk management consultants Four Elements, is sceptical about the extra measures that have been demanded by the Safety Authority for Eurotunnel (Four Elements worked on the Eurotunnel's safety plan submitted to the Authority). 'The costs associated with some of these measures are grossly disproportionate to the improvements in safety, and their implementation is not justified under the usual UK approach to safety regulation . . .' He points out that it is the travelling public who ultimately pay and that it would be better if the money were spent on other much less safe means of transport, notably roads.

The ferry operators have firmly resisted the measure which many naval architects now see as the only one that would increase the stability of ships sufficiently to avoid more disasters: the installation of transverse bulkheads to prevent water in the car deck from rapidly capsizing the vessel. They argue that the bulkheads would undermine their commercial viability - though as most car ferries operate on routes where there is no alternative, this argument seems improbable.

HUGE profits made by P&O and Sealink on the Channel routes - which trebled between 1987 and 1991 in real terms - would seem to indicate that they could absorb some reduction in profit margins. And, of course, passengers might be prepared to pay a bit more if they believed it essential for extra safety.

If ferry operators had to prove their safety case to an intergovernmental safety authority in the way that Eurotunnel does, there would be a fairer environment. Then their reluctance to fit transverse bulkheads could be discussed within the context of all modes of transport. Until then they would do well to keep their counsel rather than, as they did earlier this week, immediately reject any case for alterations to their bow doors, even before inspections on them have taken place.

The public's ability to choose between competing transport systems is being distorted. The stringent safety regime imposed on Eurotunnel has clear cost implications. Yet, on safety, the ferry operators are clearly on a sticky wicket, as demonstrated by the 1990 report highlighted in last week's Independent on Sunday, which suggested that the Department of Transport has calculated there will be a major ferry disaster every five years. If we are to benefit from competition while travelling with peace of mind, there must be tighter regulation of the ferries.

(Photographs omitted)