RARELY indeed do road accidents attract significant media attention. But the catastrophic fire in the 11·6 km Franco-Italian Mont-Blanc road tunnel on March 24 certainly did - despite the dominance of Balkan war coverage. It also prompted serious calls for much more European freight to be moved by rail. Among the first to voice this thought was Mayor of Chamonix Michel Charlet, who said on March 26 that it was ’incompatible for 800000 lorries a year to be passing through a high mountain valley’. Charlet’s sentiment was endorsed by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and on April 2 by President Jacques Chirac when he visited the tunnel to lay a wreath in memory of the 41 people known to have died. Jospin suggested that intermodal freight should be relaunched at the pan-European level, while Chirac called for piggyback to be made a priority.

Short term measures to restore transalpine freight capacity included French National Railways running extra intermodal services from Le Havre, Lille and Paris to Milano. Swiss Federal Railways, Italian Railways and Hupac added an extra Basel - Lugano piggyback service. Initially, most of the Franco-Italian lorry traffic switched to the 12·8 km Fréjus road tunnel further south, but this was set to change as plans were implemented to restrict capacity for lorries and to spread demand by pricing up in peak periods.

Chirac also called for the pigeonholed plans for a high capacity rail link from Lyon to Torino to be dusted off. This effectively reverses last year’s report (RG 7.98 p437) which recommended upgrading existing lines rather than spending Fr90bn on the French part of a new route, including a 52 km base tunnel.

The Italian MP for Alpine town of Aosta, Luciano Caveri, favours construction of a 30 km rail tunnel to carry lorry shuttles between Morgex and Le Fayet. But interest centres on the bigger scheme, whose Italian project committee secretary Bruno Bottiglieri remarked that it is ’deplorable that such catastrophes are needed to remind ourselves that the strategic problem is to restore the balance between road and rail.’

A preliminary report on the disaster published on April 13 (a full report is due on May 31) was extremely critical of the Mont-Blanc tunnel safety measures, equipment and procedures. The single bore for two-way road traffic was built in 1965, and its design capacity had long been outstripped. Ventilation equipment was unreliable, and co-ordination and communications between the separate French and Italian operating companies left much to be desired. Only two full-scale emergency exercises had been carried out since the tunnel opened, one in 1979 and one in 1989.

Looking back at the Channel Tunnel fire on November 18 1996 when a lorry on a freight shuttle caught fire, the safety measures - for all the mistakes and mishaps - did work, and no lives were lost. This was largely thanks to the existence of a ’safe haven’ in the form of the service tunnel. What the Mont-Blanc fire has done is to highlight the need for safety levels in road tunnels to match those applied to rail. It is especially significant given that Maunsell and Scetauroute are studying prospects for a road tunnel under the English Channel for Eurotunnel, which is required under the terms of its concession to present plans for a fixed road link to the two governments by 2000.

We understand that Eurotunnel sees serious difficulties in ventilating a road tunnel, while the cost of a bridge would be substantially higher. Meeting the standards currently imposed by the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority means producing a safety case showing how a multiple collision and fire can be positively prevented, and if it did occur, that all occupants of road vehicles could be evacuated safely within 90min. For the record, the Mont-Blanc fire took four days to extinguish; 30 road vehicles were destroyed, and the total number of victims may never be known. The tunnel will remain closed for some time, possibly a year. That should be long enough to start implementing new regulations that may redress the safety balance between road and rail.