Chunnel vision

The English Channel Tunnel fire forced British and French officials to revamp their safety procedures and training practices.
Ed Comeau
The 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 France.
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 procedure

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 procedures.
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 training.
“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, as well.
“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 terminal.

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 incident.
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 Winyard.
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 frequency.
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 much better.
“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 complacent now.

Ed Comeau is the owner of, a technical writing firm. He is NFPA’s former chief fire investigator and he investigated the 1996 Chunnel fire.
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