A FIRE in the 12·8 km Fréjus road tunnel on June 4, in which two lorry drivers died, calls to mind the more serious fires in the 11·6 km Franco-Italian Mont Blanc tunnel in March 1999 and in the Gotthard motorway tunnel in October 2001.

At the time several heavyweight names made encouraging noises about rail freight, with French President Chirac calling for development of piggyback services and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin suggesting that intermodal freight should be relaunched at a pan-European level. Many fine words were also spoken about bringing forward plans for the Lyon - Torino high-capacity link that includes a 52 km base tunnel.

Six years later, we wonder what has actually happened to revitalise rail freight between France and Italy. The answer, sadly, is very little. Joint venture Autoroute Ferroviaire Alpine launched a rolling motorway service using Modalohr swing-tray wagons in November 2003, but capacity is limited to 530 lorries a week - and only tankers can be carried within the loading gauge. This is paltry compared with the 3200 lorries a day that were using the Fréjus tunnel, and it was fatuous for the recently-appointed French Transport Minister Dominique Perben to claim that the answer to the problem was simply ’to put lorries on rail wagons’.

On June 6 SNCF revealed that there were an average of 200 spare places a week on the Modalohr services, but it agreed to add a night service that would lift capacity to 800 lorries a week. Its ability to run more trains at night is in any case limited by work still underway to increase the loading gauge in the Mont Cénis tunnel precisely to allow larger lorries to be carried.