HC Deb 03 June 1991 vol 192 cc10-1
9. Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what research has been carried out by or on behalf of his Department on the advisability of segregating drivers and passengers from vehicles (a) transported by ship or hovercraft and (b) transported by rail.

Mr. Freeman

For the channel tunnel car-carrying shuttles the plan is that drivers and passengers should stay in or very close to their cars. Eurotunnel believes that this procedure will be safe and the speediest way of unloading cars. The independent Anglo-French safety authority has said that it is satisfied with this system in principle, but that it wants further research to continue.

Mr. Bowis

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main reasons why occupants are separated from their vehicles on passenger ferries is the danger of the occasional spontaneous combustion of a vehicle? Does he therefore understand the concern about what would happen should that occur when passengers are inside their vehicles in enclosed carriages on a train in the channel tunnel? Can he assure us that research has been undertaken that will set people's minds at rest? Will he ensure that such research is published so that the public can be satisfied?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I assure him that research will continue and I will ensure that the House is informed of its conclusions before the channel tunnel service opens. The difference between cars being parked on the lower deck of a ferry and on the car-carrying shuttles going through the channel tunnel is that the cars on the shuttle will be in containers in which no more than five cars can be parked on any one deck. To that extent, the risk of fire is contained.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and I will ensure that the results of the research are published.

Mr. Pike

Does the Minister recognise the growing concern, especially among families with young children, that there will be dangers in travelling through the channel tunnel in trains and in being confined to compartments, particularly if delays occur in the tunnel? Is it not time for serious consideration to be given to that and for alternative proposals to be forthcoming?

Mr. Freeman

I am sure that Eurotunnel will consider whatever sensible and practical alternatives are available. Recently, I had the pleasure and privilege of travelling through the channel tunnel—I think that I was the first Minister, either French or British, to do so. The journey took four and a half hours on one of the construction trains, but it will take around 30 minutes for the shuttles to travel between Folkestone and Calais underneath the channel. Passengers will be able to get out of their cars and travel from one vehicle to the next, but they will not be able to travel the entire length of the train. It remains to be seen whether passengers are prepared to accept this, but the Government firmly believe that the channel tunnel service will be a success.

Mr. Wolfson

When my hon. Friend publishes the results of the research will he include comparisons with the European experience of long-tunnel train travel where people remain, with safety, in their vehicles?

Mr. Freeman

Yes, I am sure that we shall do so. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have been pressing my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the rail link. I am sure that the House will realise that as and when a rail link is built the amount of travel in tunnels—under the channel, through the north and south Downs and under the metropolis—will be considerable, whatever route is chosen. The experience of rail passengers travelling through long tunnels, especially in Japan, will be relevant.