Time for Channel Tunnel lorry rethink

Travellers hoping to use the Channel Tunnel face huge disruption again today following a serious fire in the tunnel yesterday. This is the third major fire in the Channel Tunnel’s history, the others occurring in 1996 and 2006. In all three instances, the fire started on board a train carrying lorries.

Four types of train use the Channel Tunnel. Eurostar high speed trains carry passengers between London and Paris or Brussels; Shuttles carry cars and their passengers between Folkestone and Calais; another type of Shuttle carries lorries and their drivers; and there are also through freight trains that use the tunnel.

When cars use the Eurotunnel Shuttle, they park inside enclosed, pressurised carriages, with fire doors between each carriage. The cars’ drivers and passengers remain with their vehicles for the journey through the tunnel. However, when it came to design the trains for transporting lorries, the design was somewhat different. The lorries are transported in open carriages, and the drivers leave their vehicles and sit in a club car at the front of the train for the journey through the tunnel. It has been suggested that the carriages were originally going to be similar to those of the car trains, but that the design was changed due to weight or cost considerations, enclosed carriages requiring much more steelwork.

There are a number of problems with the current arrangements for transporting lorries. As the carriages are open, the air rushing past the train can fan a fire and cause it to spread, as is thought to have happened in 1996. There is nothing to stop the fire from spreading along the train as, unlike car trains, the carriages aren’t fully compartmentalised. Carrying entire lorries, as opposed to just their cargoes, means there are many engines and tanks of fuel on board the train, of lorries that may have just travelled hundreds of miles, so their engines will still be hot. Unlike Eurotunnel or Eurostar trains, the lorries and their condition are largely beyond the control of the tunnel’s operators and are not fitted with special monitoring equipment. And because the lorry drivers have to leave their vehicles, they are not there to spot early signs of a fire to raise the alarm.

One answer would be to stop carrying lorries altogether. In terms of energy, it can’t be efficient to carry an entire lorry through the tunnel as well as its cargo. However, in terms of logistics, it may be more efficient to carry lorries. Each year, the tunnel carries around two million tonnes on freight trains, whereas it carries 17 million tonnes on board lorries, so clearly freight operators prefer the latter solution. This is ultimately tied up in the issue of needing to move freight to the railways rather than have lorries clogging up our motorways – something to aim for in the long term, but probably not a viable short-term solution to the issue of freight in the Channel Tunnel.

The other solution is to re-examine the way lorries are transported. It has to be better to have them fully enclosed in a carriage in the way that cars are, with doors in between each carriage to prevent fires from spreading. The drivers can then either remain with the lorries, meaning that any fire can be spotted more easily, or else the carriages can be fitted with fire suppression systems which flood the interior with an inert gas to smother a fire as soon as it is detected. If the extra weight of having fully-enclosed carriages means fewer lorries can be carried per train, so be it – perhaps the remainder of the freight can be carried by rail. As for the cost of building new trains, is it really greater than the cost of repairing half a mile of the tunnel every ten years, and all the lost revenue when the tunnel is closed for a few weeks?

Something needs to change. While the thousands of frustrated passengers milling around at St Pancras and Gare du Nord is a good enough reason, it’s not nearly the most important. So far, no-one has died in an incident in the Channel Tunnel. Next time, they might not be so lucky.

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