Published: 1st February 2015
A fire broke out on two lorries in the Channel Tunnel on January 17 at 1223hrs causing disruption to Eurotunnel services and Eurostar trains for several days.
Because the Channel Tunnel crosses an international boundary the incident is being investigated by UK Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) and the French equivalent, the Bureau d’Enquetes sur les Accidents de Transport Terrestre (BEA-TT).
The latter organisation is leading the investigation as the incident was on the French side of the boundary. The fire caused serious damage to two trucks on-board the shuttle although at the time the incident was described as minor with one lorry smouldering based on official Eurotunnel information.
Eurotunnel freight shuttle 7340 was travelling to France in what is known as the Running Tunnel North of the Channel Tunnel when the on-board fire alarm system detected a fire. The driver reported this to Eurotunnel control and then a second tunnel based fire alarm went off and the overhead line traction power supply was lost.
The train was brought to a controlled stop by the driver at cross-passage 4418 which is about 10 miles from the French portal to allow a controlled evacuation of 38 passengers and four Eurotunnel staff into the adjacent service tunnel.
These 42 people were travelling in the amenity coach located behind the leading locomotive and were evacuated in just seven minutes into the service tunnel via a cross-passage. The evacuation was completed by 1237 hrs and within 58 minutes the tunnel was empty and firefighting operations underway.
Firefighters confirmed that two trucks were on fire which was brought under control at 1640 hrs but it still took several hours of dousing to cool the shuttle. The evacuated passengers and crew departed from the service tunnel at 1403 hrs and taken to the French terminal of the Channel Tunnel system.
Limited public operations resumed at 0345 hrs on 18 January using the Running Tunnel South as the northern tunnel was not available for traffic with the damaged shuttle not removed until 1445 hrs that day. The RAIB and BEA-TT will publish the findings and any recommendations when the investigation is complete.
Problems carried on for a few days due to overhead wire damage which is why the Channel Tunnel fire remained in the news for some while.
Lord Tony Berkeley has written to the Channel Tunnel Inter Governmental Commission (IGC) asking them to review the design of the open lorry carrying shuttle trains through the Channel Tunnel following the fifth fire.
Lord Berkeley wrote that he thought this was the fourth fire Channel Tunnel fire caused by lorries, the previous ones were in 1996, 2006 and 2008 plus in November 2012 a fire on a truck was detected as the train left the Tunnel. The fire in 2008, resulted in Eurotunnel creating mist areas designed to extinguish any fire without the need for trains to leave the tunnel.
One such report clearly said that millions of litres of pressurised water had been sprayed from a Eurostar train and flooded the tunnel. Obviously a train cannot carry such quantities of water and the required machinery to create such a spray.
The fire suppressant system was installed by Eurotunnel as an additional safety feature and was nothing to do with Eurostar who operate international high speed passenger services through the tunnel.
The lorry shuttles could also be the cause of air turbulence in the tunnel causing the overhead wires being damaged the letter also says. This comment was prompted by the service interruptions following the fire damage caused by the overhead wire problems.
Lord Berkeley comments that there appears to be one common thread to these five incidents; trucks in open wagons were involved and the planned mitigating measures to prevent the fire from causing damage or closures were not successful in preventing long periods of full or part closure.
This was debated in the House of Lords on 22nd January and a number of peers expressed concern about the design of the open wagons used to carry lorries.
I noted the remarks of the minister that carrying lorries in enclosed wagons would be commercial suicide’ but it is not clear whether this is the official position of the UK Government, or the IGC, and this clearly needs clarifying; in particular, where is the evidence to back up this assertion?
I suggest that the safety and operability of the tunnel system is of more importance than a comment on commercial suicide, but if this is the case, then surely the IGC should have a view on the balance between profit and keeping an important fixed link open.
However, I believe that after this latest fire there is sufficient evidence to justify the IGC and Safety Authority requiring Eurotunnel to come up urgently with a scheme to reduce the risk of such fires, and the consequent closure of the tunnel for extended periods, to an acceptable level.
I understand that the initial risk assessment when the tunnel opened was for a fire to occur once in 120 years. We have now had five fires in 20 years, or a risk of one in four years. This surely deserves a more general assessment of trends of risk and possible solutions.
It would appear that one solution would be an alternative designs for the wagons to carry trucks – such that the trucks were enclosed, not subject to wind pressures in the tunnel, and with the space equipped with Halon or other extinguishing equipment.
If this required the wagon to be heavier, then the operator has the option of increasing the wagon design and axle weight, or of reducing the maximum weight of trucks to below 44 tonnes. I doubt that this would reduce traffic much, since I understand that most trucks crossing Channel bulk out before they weight out, but I would want to see the figures on this.
I trust that the IGC will proceed with this work with the minimum of delay and look forward to comments.
Lord Bekeley’s letter raises many important points and also highlights the balance between safety and commercial pressures. But however the investigation pans out, you can be sure that rail.co.uk will report accurately on the matter unlike the popular press who after 20 years do not seem to understand the difference between a tunnel and a train so far as the Channel Tunnel is concerned!