September 12, 2008

Drivers Stuck in France After Fire Closes Tunnel

By Tom Smithard

Haulage companies said the fire had left many of their lorry drivers stranded in France.Eddie Stobart spokesman Toby Macormac said between 15 and 20 of its vehicles were affected, although he added that there would be many more lorries on their way through France towards the tunnel.He said: "None of our lorries were involved in the fire but we have got vehicles that were attempting to get on the Eurotunnel that have all now been evacuated away from the terminal."When there are strikes or Operation Stack is in place the lorries eventually get across, but with the tunnel being closed all together it's going to be a battle to get on the ferries."We've got people frantically trying to book them on but that's what everybody's going to be doing. It's not going to be a very nice 24 hours for our drivers."He said that, unlike many other haulage companies that also use ferries to cross the Channel, Eddie Stobart relies on Eurotunnel as its main point of access to the continent.NTS International Express, which specialises in transporting machine parts throughout Europe, said it also had a number of vehicles that were meant to have travelled though the tunnel today.Spokesman Dean Rough said: "We have around 10 vehicles caught in the backlog at the moment."There's not a lot we can do. We'll have to sit and wait to get on the ferries instead. It's just a case of having to sit and hold tight." A police spokesman said: "Traffic on the M20 is heavy around Dover and Eurotunnel and drivers are urged to avoid the area unless it is absolutely necessary."The incident brought back unwelcome memories of 1996 when the tunnel was badly damaged by a major blaze after a shuttle train carrying lorries caught fire.That fire burned for over five hours, wrecking the concrete lining and facilities over about half a mile of tunnel and causing 200m worth of damage.All the staff and 31 passengers were evacuated from the tunnel safely but seven required medical treatment at the trackside due to the large clouds of smoke generated by the flames.The Road Haulage Association said yesterday that the tunnel's safety record was superb, but stressed that a thorough investigation must be undertaken to establish the cause.Evacuation plans have been in place since the crossing opened in 1994. The two running tunnels which take freight and passengers between France and England are separated by a third service tunnel.This doubles up as a safety escape passage and has been specially designed for such use, with openings every 375m.It is ventilated to a higher pressure than the two "running" tracks. This is to ensure that if the emergency doors are opened, air flows away from the service tunnel keeping it smoke free.Talking about the procedures in place, rail safety expert Peter Rayner said: "If you are going to have an incident like today's, the best tunnel to have it in is the Channel Tunnel. It is set out to deal with it."If an incident happened in a normal railway tunnel it would be a much worse situation."

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