IN THE WAKE of the fire in the Mont Blanc road tunnel on March 26 last year in which 39 people died, the French Ministry of Transport commissioned a safety audit of all tunnels over 300m long, both road and rail. France has 1300 rail tunnels, of which 116 are longer than 1 km; 31 of these were identified as needing safety checks. No critical situation was found, but the inspection team recommended improvements to lighting, power supplies, access routes, emergency planning and communications. Réseau Ferré de France will fund any works required as part of its investment programme.

Among tunnels needing attention are the 2·6 km Rolleboise tunnel between Mantes-la-Jolie and Vernon on the main line from Paris to Rouen, and the 3·6 km Meudon - Viroflay tunnel along the left bank of the River Seine in Paris used by RER Line C.

In contrast, some road tunnels require urgent attention, and around Fr2bn is to be spent on safety improvements to 39 tunnels over the next four years. Work will include improvements to ventilation, installation of automated incident detection systems, construction of safe areas and emergency exits, as well as changes to surveillance and emergency procedures.

Meanwhile, a spate of incidents in New South Wales has prompted Transport Minister Carl Scully to appoint consultants from Halcrow Rail and Richard Oliver International to examine safety procedures and training of operating staff. The worst accident was a rear-end collision in December at Glenbrook, near Lithgow, when a double-deck commuter EMU ran into a car-carrier wagon on the rear of the Indian Pacific, killing seven people.

There is good reason to be seriously concerned at the ’disappearance’ of trains on a number of occasions from the control panel at Sydenham, presumably because of a failure to activate track circuits. This prompted Scully to order Rail Access Corp to request all operators ’to physically examine every wheel on every carriage of every train’.

In Britain, lightweight DMUs built in the 1980s had to be fitted with track circuit actuators, but the incidents in New South Wales on two occasions involved the Indian Pacific, which is hardly a lightweight train.