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Fire down below

01 Oct 2008

EUROPE: Investigations have started into the cause of a fire on a freight shuttle in the Channel Tunnel, which is likely to result in considerable disruption for Eurotunnel and its customers over several months.

The fire was detected in the French end section of the north running tunnel shortly before 15.00 on September 11, and despite the deployment of more than to 200 firefighters it was not declared extinguished until 09.00 the following day. The fire is believed to have started close to the front of the 700 m long train, less than 100 m from the club car in which 32 lorry drivers and Eurotunnel staff were travelling, immediately behind the leading locomotive. All 27 lorries on the shuttle were reported to be burnt out or damaged.

Eurotunnel says that experience gained since the last major fire occurred on November 18 1996, and following many less serious equipment failures and incidents over the intervening years including a minor freight shuttle fire in August 2006, should enable repairs to be carried out more quickly this time.

The fire burned intensively, with temperatures reaching 1 000°C for at least 16 h, over a longer length than in 1996, so spalling of the concrete tunnel lining is likely to be more severe.

Nevertheless, Eurotunnel was able to resume services rapidly, following the withdrawal of the firefighters on the morning of September 12. Two freight shuttles ran empty through the undamaged south running tunnel that evening, and freight trains began running again that night. Loaded freight shuttles and Eurostar services resumed on September 13, with passenger shuttles restarting the following day. In 1996, rail freight did not resume for four days and Eurostar for 16 days, although the damaged section was not re-opened until May 15 1997 and the freight shuttles were out of action for seven months while an intensive safety investigation was completed.

Because the burning freight shuttle had already travelled for 39 km before it stopped, there was a likelihood that it had caused damage to cables and equipment, and not least the catenary. For this reason, Eurotunnel decided to re-open only the south running tunnel, sending trains through in flights one way and then the other on a 2 h cycle.

On September 19 Eurotunnel reported it was handling 80 shuttle trains, 36 Eurostars and six freight trains/day through the one bore. It expected to re-open the UK end section of the north tunnel the following week, after smoke pollution had been cleaned off equipment, but the condition of the mid-Channel section was 'still being evaluated’.