Friday, 12 September 2008

Eurotunnel Still Ablaze

I don't think it can be exagerated what a nightmare this fire in the Eurotunnel is causing for traffic, commerce and travel in the UK and France. Though when I went to bed yesterday the tunnel's operator was saying the fire had been extinguised, when I got up this morning I hear the fire is still burning. This does not look good for the long-term impact of the blaze.

The fire in the rail tunnel, which since 1994 has connected the UK and France running under the English Channel, was apparently caused by a truck/lorry overturning on one of the vehicle transport trains. Some injuries have been reported and hundreds of passengers have been left stranded. By some miracle, there were no passenger trains in the tunnel at the time of the blaze, amazing considering that 100 trains pass through the tunnel each day. The injured people were evacuated through the central service tunnel (the BBC has a cool diagram of how the chunnel works here).

1996, it took months to fix the structural damage to the tunnel. That caused enough cahos then, but since then the traffic through the tunnel has increased dramatically. If such a closure were to happen again for so long it would cause massive long-term chaos and an economic blow to Britain, the UK and Belgium.

Even more worrying, the overturned truck/lorry reportedly contained phenol, a deadly chemical that isn't allowed to be transported through the tunnel. The people who are reportedly in the hospital for smoke inhalation could have inhaled this chemical as it burned.

According to Wikipedia, the toxic chemical was used in the Second World War at
Auschwitz as a means of rapid execution. Seeing as the fire happened on September 11th, there are some obvious concerned about whether this was truly an accident.

As someone who was planning to take the Eurostar train many times over the next several months, this is quite worrying. But for the economies of England and France in general, a shutdown of the tunnel for several months could be devastating. The majority of freight traffic between the UK and continental Europe now goes through the chunnel. In addition, the Eurotunnel just recently turned a profit for the first time, and there were big plans for expansion of the passenger services through it.

Just hours before the fire broke out yesterday, Air France announced it was launching its own high-speed train company through the tunnel which would take less than 2 hours, breaking the Eurostar monopoly. The journey currently takes a minimum of 2h 15m. Clearly there's a lot riding on the tunnel and its activity is only increasing. If anything were to go wrong with the tunnel at this crucial time it would have huge reverberations through France and Britain's economy.

1 comment:

Jon Worth said...

I've done some further research into that Air France train idea and, quite frankly, I don't reckon they have got a hope of doing it, let alone managing it at a higher speed.

Why?

(1) Tunnel security systems are really complicated - as explained in depth here. So you can't just buy a TGV and send it through the tunnel.

(2) The high speed line between Parid and Lille is busy already, and all the other trains on it run at 300km/h (186mph). So even if your Air France train was capable of more it couldn't do it that stretch.

(3) The supposed timeframe is out of the question. It takes ages and ages to procure trains - you need a 6-8 year run in period for an advanced high speed train, and I can find nothing on the web that says Air France has managed to procure any trains.

So, yes, OK, liberalisation in theory start of next decade. But in practice it will take much longer - and may indeed never actually happen.