The Mont Blanc tunnel: why they say it's safe

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Mont Blanc tunnel, linking France and Italy, has finally re-opened, three years after 39 people were killed in a blaze started by a stranded, over-heated truck. But what's been done to improve safety?

The re-opening of the tunnel, jointly managed by france and Italy, was originally planned for last year, but then delayed upon French insistence for added security tests, which have now been completed.

There was huge economic pressure to resume the tunnel's service. Originally opened in 1965, the Mont Blanc tunnel, a feat of engineering, is 11.6 km long and joins the Haute Savoie department of eastern France with Italy's Val d'Aosta.

Some 80 percent of Italian exports are transported by road - and the tunnel is that country's single most important freight route abroad. Italy has estimated the total cost of the closure of the tunnel to its economy at EUR 2.6 billion.

But this huge sum pales before the horrific details of the fire, in March, 1999, when 39 people died trapped in an inferno in which the heat became so intense, it melted the carcasses of vehicles and burnt through solid concrete.

The tragedy began after a Belgian truck carrying flour and margarine overheated and caught fire, stranded in the middle of the tunnel, causing a blockage of traffic behind.

On an open road, it would probably have been a minor incident. Inside the tunnel, it became a death trap within just minutes. As motorists sought refuge, in vain, from the billowing thick smoke, the fire soon engulfed their vehicles.

 The official report was highly critical of the systems then in place for detecting the initial incident, as well as the incapacity to fight the blaze or clear the smoke, and to evacuate the motorists.

The victims' families have been engaged in a furious, ongoing legal row over who is responsible for the negligence and they have actively participated in developing the new security measures now in place.

French fire officers' unions are among those who have voiced concern that safety inside the refurbished tunnel can still be improved upon, but France's transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot claims that it is now "the safest tunnel in the world".

Some EUR 300 million has been spent on new safety provisions, and the following are the nine principal changes to the tunnel's security system:

1) There are 37 emergency shelters, twice as many as before. Big enough to hold 50 people, they are separated from the tunnel by a double airlock capable of withstanding heat up to 1,200 degrees centigrade during two hours.

The shelters are connected by videophone to control-centres. Staircases now lead down to the evacuation shaft which runs under the road tunnel.

 2) Every 100 metres are smoke-extraction ducts - 116 in all - which are linked to a separate shaft which also runs under the road-tunnel.

3) Every 100 metres are 116 security alcoves, equipped with emergency telephone and fire extinguishing equipment. Lay-by's for vehicles are installed at 300-metre intervals.

4) Emergency lights are positioned every 300 metres and remote-controlled barriers at every 600 metres.

5) Control and command functions are now carried out by a single Franco-Italian organisation. In addition to posts at either end of the tunnel, an addditional new rescue centre is situated in the middle of the tunnel and will be manned round-the-clock

6) This mid-point rescue centre is equipped with three specially-designed fire-trucks which have cockpits at both ends so they can drive in either direction without turning round.

he tunnel, jointly managed by france and Italy, was originally planned for last year, but then delayed upon French insistence for added security tests, which have now been completed.

There was huge economic pressure to resume the tunnel's service. Originally opened in 1965, the Mont Blanc tunnel, a feat of engineering, is 11.6 km long and joins the Haute Savoie department of eastern France with Italy's Val d'Aosta.

Some 80 percent of Italian exports are transported by road - and the tunnel is that country's single most important freight route abroad. Italy has estimated the total cost of the closure of the tunnel to its economy at EUR 2.6 billion.

But this huge sum pales before the horrific details of the fire, in March, 1999, when 39 people died trapped in an inferno in which the heat became so intense, it melted the carcasses of vehicles and burnt through solid concrete.

The tragedy began after a Belgian truck carrying flour and margarine overheated and caught fire, stranded in the middle of the tunnel, causing a blockage of traffic behind.

On an open road, it would probably have been a minor incident. Inside the tunnel, it became a death trap within just minutes. As motorists sought refuge, in vain, from the billowing thick smoke, the fire soon engulfed their vehicles.

 The official report was highly critical of the systems then in place for detecting the initial incident, as well as the incapacity to fight the blaze or clear the smoke, and to evacuate the motorists.

The victims' families have been engaged in a furious, ongoing legal row over who is responsible for the negligence and they have actively participated in developing the new security measures now in place.

French fire officers' unions are among those who have voiced concern that safety inside the refurbished tunnel can still be improved upon, but France's transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot claims that it is now "the safest tunnel in the world".

Some EUR 300 million has been spent on new safety provisions, and the following are the nine principal changes to the tunnel's security system:

1) There are 37 emergency shelters, twice as many as before. Big enough to hold 50 people, they are separated from the tunnel by a double airlock capable of withstanding heat up to 1,200 degrees centigrade during two hours.

The shelters are connected by videophone to control-centres. Staircases now lead down to the evacuation shaft which runs under the road tunnel.

 2) Every 100 metres are smoke-extraction ducts - 116 in all - which are linked to a separate shaft which also runs under the road-tunnel.

3) Every 100 metres are 116 security alcoves, equipped with emergency telephone and fire extinguishing equipment. Lay-by's for vehicles are installed at 300-metre intervals.

4) Emergency lights are positioned every 300 metres and remote-controlled barriers at every 600 metres.

5) Control and command functions are now carried out by a single Franco-Italian organisation. In addition to posts at either end of the tunnel, an addditional new rescue centre is situated in the middle of the tunnel and will be manned round-the-clock

6) This mid-point rescue centre is equipped with three specially-designed fire-trucks which have cockpits at both ends so they can drive in either direction without turning round.

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