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Channel Tunnel: Road Freight

Volume 704: debated on Monday 13 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, following the fire on 11 September, they will review the safety regulations applying to the carrying of road freight through the Channel Tunnel.

My Lords, the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission, acting in the name of the British and French Governments, has asked the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority to conduct a fundamental review of the extent to which experience has modified the original risk-assessment assumptions for the tunnel and to make recommendations. We expect its final report to be made public no later than September 2009.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. The best part of a year seems a long time to have to wait for a response. Is he aware that this is the second major fire that has occurred since the tunnel opened? I believe that in both cases a large length of the tunnel lining was burnt out and collapsed, which means that the seabed is standing up on its own. Luckily, nobody was hurt on this occasion. My noble friend will be aware that services have been disrupted, and probably will be for many months. Is there an argument for taking precautionary measures to ensure that this does not happen again in the interim and that the carriage of trucks is either restricted or banned until the existing study is completed?

My Lords, I shall certainly draw my noble friend’s remarks on the interim arrangements to the attention of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority. However, as regards the safety of the trucks, following the fire in 1996, the Health and Safety Executive commissioned, as he will know, an independent review of the design of the shuttle trains, which concluded that any risks attached to the design were as low as reasonably practicable.

My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in saying that surely September 2009 is rather a long way away, and another incident could well happen again. Surely the Government could take some action—for example, looking at the amount of flammable liquid that is carried on heavy goods vehicles and encouraging more transport of rail freight rather than on trucks going through the tunnel. It is a matter of urgency, and I hope that the Government will reflect and do something before 2009.

My Lords, we will draw noble Lords’ remarks to the attention of the safety authority, but our current advice is that there is no reason to make any early changes. I stress that I said that the final report will be made public,

“no later than September 2009”;

I hope that it will be possible to move sooner than that.

My Lords, no doubt the fires have cost huge sums of money and there is a need to act very quickly to get some fire suppression equipment fixed to the trucks that carry the lorries through the tunnel. When you look at these things in discounted cash flow, you can always prove that there is not a business case, but we have had two fires, and it is urgently necessary that the ordinary fire suppression devices that are fixed to so many buildings are fixed to the carriages that pass through the Channel Tunnel.

My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s remarks, but I stress again that, following the last fire, the HSE commissioned an independent review of the design, which concluded that any risks were as low as reasonably practicable. At the moment, we have no reason to believe that there is an issue of public concern here, but we have asked the authority to look at any lessons that can be learnt from the recent fire.

My Lords, would it not now be appropriate to congratulate the firefighters and other services on their magnificent effort during that terrible disaster and the previous one as well? They are a credit to our country.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. As a House, we wish to send those congratulations. We also congratulate Eurotunnel and all the staff on the work that they have done to bring services back to normal, as near as possible, in the short time since the fire.

My Lords, I am told that toll-paying tunnels such as the Mersey tunnel have much stricter regulations for the transport through them of flammables and so on than non-toll-paying tunnels such as the Conwy tunnel. What have the Government in mind to get both tunnels under the same sort of regulations? Many of the trucks that go through these tunnels are carrying very dangerous materials.

My Lords, I have already said all I can say on the Channel Tunnel. I am not familiar with the precise safety regimes for the other tunnels that the noble Lord mentioned, but I would be happy to look at them and come back to the noble Lord.

My Lords, perhaps I may come back to my noble friend’s very helpful answer in respect of the Channel Tunnel and to the comments from the safety authority that, after the previous fire, the risks were thought to be as low as reasonably practicable. I suggest to my noble friend that something is wrong if a risk that is as low as reasonably practicable has allowed another fire to happen within 12 years. Is my noble friend confident that this is not going to happen again in the next year before the safety authority reports?

My Lords, we have asked the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority to report precisely in order that it will look at those issues. As I said, I hope that it will be possible to make public its report much sooner than next September, but I cannot give an absolute commitment for it to do so. I would not want my noble friend or the House to think that there is any lack of urgency about these proceedings on the part of the safety authorities both here and in France. There is a great deal of urgency to see that we learn the lessons as soon as possible.