SAFETY in rail tunnels is greater than on open line because of the absence of level crossings and restricted access, and rail travel is about 45 times safer than road. These are among the conclusions of a report on the safety of rail tunnels commissioned by the Swiss Ministry of Transport following the fires in the Mont Blanc and Tauern road tunnels during 1999.

The investigation covered 689 tunnels which were divided into four categories based on length, accessibility, traffic levels and the characteristics of the rail infrastructure. No specific measures were recommended for the 272 tunnels in Category A and the 307 in Category B. Operators were required to examine the costs and benefits of possible improvements to 84 tunnels in Category C. For the 26 tunnels in Category D, most of which are longer than 3000m, a number of improvements were recommended. These included better lighting, ventilation and signage for emergency exits, installation of communications links and in some cases provision of walkways. Some of this work is already under way.

The report states that emphasis should be on prevention of tunnel fires, and measures envisaged include systematic checking of trains for hot axleboxes, out-of-gauge loads and other defects before they enter tunnels. The report’s authors stress that general rules are often not applicable and note that each tunnel may require specific measures.

Operators are required to suggest improvements to rolling stock - such as replacing conventional passenger-worked emergency brakes with a passenger-crew communications link - by June. They have until the end of September to come up with infrastructure improvements, for example installation of axle counters and hot axlebox detectors.

HThe Swiss Ministry of Transport has confirmed that an initial budget of SFr5·9bn will be made available for the second stage of the Bahn 2000 programme starting in 2010.