The English Channel Tunnel fire forced
British and French officials to revamp their safety procedures and
following article appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of NFPA
Journal. Reprinted with permission.
© 2002 NFPA Journal
The English Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994, was
the first underwater transportation system to cross the English
Channel. The Chunnel, as it’s known, took more than seven years to
design and construct, and, at a cost of more than $15 billion, it was
the most expensive privatized construction project in history. Spanning
31 miles (50 kilometers), the tunnel, which is owned by Eurotunnel, is
an engineering marvel that allows easy movement between England and
The Chunnel is composed of three separate
tunnels that are 131 feet (40 meters) below the English Channel sea
bed. The two outer running tunnels, known as the North and South
tunnels, are designed for railway traffic. The third tunnel is a
service tunnel. While trains can go in either direction in each tunnel,
the North Tunnel carries trains to France, while the South Tunnel
carries trains to England.After its opening, the tunnel quickly became
a critical economic link between Britain, France and the rest of
Europe. Today, 12 trains pass through the tunnel every hour, and heavy
goods vehicle (HGV) traffic continues to increase. The Chunnel has also
been used to lay six fiber optic cables, expanding telecommunications
between the two countries.
Because the Chunnel is under 150 feet (46
meters) of water, countless hours of safety design and inspection were
carried out to ensure that it would operate properly. Nonetheless, a
fire broke out aboard a carriage inside the tunnel on November 18,
1996, trapping 33 passengers, who were mostly truck drivers, and two
crewmembers in dense smoke and darkness. Eight people were treated for
smoke inhalation. Fortunately, no one was killed.
Although there are no NFPA standards that apply
to these types of rail tunnels, NFPA was asked to investigate the fire
in conjunction with a team from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade of
Melbourne, Australia. A follow-up visit was conducted in 2000 to see
what lessons the fire protection communities learned from the fire.
The fire started under a lorry on one of the
train’s HGV shipping cars just before it left Calais, France, for
Folkestone, England. According to the Channel Tunnel Safety
Authority’s 1997 inquiry report, “four security guards saw flames
of 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) in height on an HGV wagon before the
train entered the tunnel. Five of the first six in-tunnel fire
detectors only gave unconfirmed alarms, and the on-board fire detectors
on the rear loader wagon didn’t give an early alarm.”
Following standard operating
By the time the word was passed to those in
decision-making positions, the train was into the tunnel. Following
standard operating procedures, the burning train went forward to allow
the English to extinguish the fire in a safety siding when the train
emerged on the other end. British fire brigades were also notified and
began responding to the fire.
As might have been expected, the constant flow
of air along the train as it moved down the tube caused the fire to
spread to cars behind the car of origin. By the time the tunnel’s
heat, flame, and carbon monoxide detectors signaled Eurotunnel, the
flames were out of control. The train finally came to a stop 12 miles
(19 kilometers) into the tunnel when, according to published reports,
the engineer received a warning light on the engineer’s control panel
indicating a potential derailment fault condition. When the train came
to a halt, the fire became so intense that it cut the overhead power
supply, preventing the train from moving forward and eliminating the
option of continuing down the tunnel until it reached the foaming
stations in England.
The 33 passengers and 2 crewmembers were forced
to evacuate through the smoke-logged running tunnel into the safety of
the service tunnel.
After many hours and a difficult battle, the
fire was finally extinguished at 11:15 the following morning. The fire
destroyed eight transporters and their contents, as well as a loader
and rear locomotive. Three other carrier wagons were damaged, and the
amenity car and front locomotive required extensive cleaning. In
addition, approximately 164 feet (50 meters) of tunnel lining was
damaged. In some places, it was reduced from 16 to 7 inches (40 to 17
centimeters) in thickness. An additional 787 feet (240 meters) of
lining on each side of this area were also damaged.
Passenger service was interrupted for 15 days.
Tunnel operations were shut down for 10 days while approximately 4,921
feet (1,500 meters) of electrical cable, 6,890 feet (2,100 meters) of
communications cable, and 12,795 feet (3,900 meters) of fiber optic
cable were replaced. More than 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) of 2,625 feet
(800 meters) of overhead wire that provides power to the locomotives
also had to be replaced.
Changes have occurred
According to the Channel Tunnel Safety
Authority’s inquiry, an inspection of the tunnel and its safety
systems revealed numerous problems the design engineers should have
considered but didn’t.
“Following the incident, 36 recommendations
were made that formed the basis of all of the changes,” says Bill
Welsh, assistant chief fire officer for the Kent County Fire Brigade
and the command officer who directed the U.K. firefighting operations
inside the tunnel.
One of the most serious problems was the failure
of the tunnel communications system. Given that the Chunnel is under
the jurisdiction of two nations that speak different languages,
coordination and communication are essential to solving problems
efficiently. Unfortunately, these very factors were lacking, and the
failure contributed to the severity of the incident.
Before the fire, neither Eurotunnel nor the
French and English fire brigades had fully expressed to one another
their needs and requirements. Nor had they trained together regularly.
Today, it’s a different situation.
The first line of response (FLOR) and the second
line of response (SLOR) firefighters from both nations now train
together so that they’re familiar with each other’s equipment and
tactics. The two countries also exchange firefighters weekly to help
promote better understanding of each department’s activities and
In addition, staff in both the French and
English fire stations have been increased to 12 firefighters and
officers on each watch. At the time of the fire, there were only eight
emergency responders on duty in Folkestone and eight in Calais.
To make sure the FLOR operation between the U.K.
and French brigades is seamless, a series of advanced training
exercises was also organized. In 1996, there was little or no joint
“We do exercises between the FLOR units and
some external, low-level exercises once a quarter,” says Welsh.
In addition, Eurotunnel also runs a tabletop
exercise involving all entities, including senior Eurotunnel and fire
brigade command officers. Since this is a tabletop exercise, it
doesn’t require that the tunnels be taken out of service.
A major on-site exercise involving all three
tunnels is also run annually, and all fire brigade levels from both
countries are involved. The exercise is conducted during low-traffic
periods, for instance between midnight and 5:00 a.m.
“The exercise focuses on different scenarios,
such as a collision, fire, or chemical release,” says Welsh. First
introduced in 1997, the exercises provide everyone with a better
understanding of the requirements of each service.
Training together has led to a clearer
understanding of who does what and which pieces of equipment are used,
“We conduct training twice a week with the
French,” says Bob Winyard, the Kent County Fire Brigade assistant
divisional officer who’s in charge of fire operations at the
New system of checking
Another change was the introduction of a better
system of checking the shuttles before they enter the tunnel. If a
train catches fire now, says Welsh, the engineer must stop it
and evacuate the passengers immediately, “unless it is in
sight of the (destination) terminal. This is a big change.”
In addition, staffing in the rail control center
(RCC) has been increased, and the fire detection controller (FDC)
responsible for identifying fire alarms must immediately
notify both the FLOR and the SLOR units of a fire. In 1996, the
British SLOR wasn’t notified until approximately 75 minutes into the
The FDC, who’s an Eurotunnel employee, has
also been relocated from the Folkestone fire station’s Fire Emergency
Management Center (FEMC) to the RCC at the terminal in Folkestone. This
facility coordinates the underground railway operations.
Kent County Fire Brigade personnel now staff the
FEMC, and “the SLOR also has to be trained in FEMC operations because
the center is empty when the FLOR responds to an incident,” says
Because the FDC was moved out of the Folkestone
fire station, it was necessary to install alarms and lights in the
station, which the FDC activates to alert crews to an emergency.
There have also been some changes in the tunnel
itself. Members of the French and English fire brigades now patrol the
service tunnel from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and help reduce response
time to an incident by pre-staging a unit at the tunnel’s mid-point.
The two countries share this duty.
Because the tunnel’s radio system was quickly
overloaded during the fire, emergency personnel have been given a
special handset they can plug into the landline when they arrive on the
scene in the service tunnel. This provides them with direct
communication and multiple telephones.
Tactical radios are still used in the tunnel,
but they’re limited to line of sight within the tunnel. To increase
their range, the communications vehicle, which is used to drive the
British FLOR participating in the STTS to the service tunnel, is
plugged into the communications system in the tunnel. This provides
both France and Britain with eight channels to use and a common
During the fire, some problems with personnel
accountability were also noted, so a very strict accountability system
has been developed. All personnel must now be logged in on a control
board at the Folkestone station and in Calais.
“It requires five to six firefighters to staff
the board,” says Winyard. “It requires a lot of control.”
Also at the Folkestone terminal is the Incident
Control Center (ICC), which can be activated during a major incident so
that the different British agencies can gather in one spot to manage
the situation. Since it takes approximately 40 minutes to get the room
fully staffed and operational, incidents are run out of the FEMC in the
fire station until the ICC is ready. Once the ICC assumes control, the
FEMC becomes the logistics center.
“This process is the same (as it was during
the 1996 fire),” says Winyard. “However, the information flow is
“We’re still finding some weaknesses. For
example, the 90-minute evacuation time from the service tunnel has
never been met.”
In addition, dealing with injured people while
trying to evacuate the tunnel would still present “a problem.”
“Complacency was the source of the problem in
1996,” says Welsh. “Eurotunnel believed that it (the fire) could
never happen. The probability factor was 300 years between fires.”
Everyone involved in the Chunnel is less
Ed Comeau is the
owner of writer-tech.com, a
technical writing firm. He is NFPA’s former chief fire investigator
and he investigated the 1996 Chunnel fire.