HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc837-42 3.30 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody(by private notice) (Crewe and Nantwich)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the fire in the channel tunnel.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young)

At approximately 8.45 pm GMT yesterday, a fire broke out in a lorry on board a Eurotunnel freight shuttle inside the channel tunnel between Calais and Folkestone. The shuttle was carrying 29 heavy goods vehicles with 31 drivers and companions, plus three crew members. The shuttle, on its way from France, had a French driver and crew. It stopped 12 miles through its journey on the French side of the tunnel.

Emergency services, firefighters and ambulances, arrived at the scene within 20 minutes and helped evacuate everyone on board the shuttle. Twenty-eight were taken back to France by a tourist shuttle travelling in the untouched northern tunnel, and six were evacuated by the service tunnel transport system. Eight people were taken to hospital, two of whom were detained, including the driver of the shuttle; their condition is reported to be serious but not life threatening. I understand that both will be discharged today.

French and British fire brigades worked through the night to bring the fire under control. The emergency is now over. I am sure that the House will want to join me in congratulating the emergency services on the way in which they coped with the incident and in expressing relief that there were no fatalities.

The French authorities have already begun a formal inquiry. That is for them since the incident happened in the French part of the tunnel. Eurotunnel's own investigation is under way. In addition, the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, which includes representatives from this country and France, will be making its own inquiry into the incident and studying the reports from the operators and the French authorities. The safety authority's findings will be made public. I shall be urging my French counterpart, Mr. Pons, to ensure that the French authorities publish their findings as soon as they properly can so that the lessons of this incident can be learnt by all concerned.

In the meantime, it would be wrong to speculate on the causes of the fire. I can assure the House, however, that representatives of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority are on site and will not allow either passenger or freight operations to recommence until Eurotunnel can prove that that can be done safely.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is the Secretary of State aware that the House of Commons will be grateful to the firefighters of both countries for their immediate response and the efficiency of the manner in which they carried out the rescue of the drivers trapped in the tunnel? Is he also aware that the safety authority originally recommended that semi-open wagons should not be used for the carriage of heavy goods vehicles? Last July, when I questioned his Department about a new risk assessment of the dangers arising from the carriage of heavy goods vehicles in semi-open wagons, I was told that there was no need for such an assessment, and that everything was for the best in the best of all worlds.

Given that the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority changed its original advice, because it was told that it should take account of the costs and commercial interests of the channel tunnel operators, does the Secretary of State agree that it is imperative that safety be the first assessment? Does he further agree that even if it costs money to enclose heavy goods vehicles in wagons that, last night, would have prevented the spread of toxic fumes and the considerable difficulty caused to the people who had to lie on the floor for 20 minutes, that should be undertaken immediately, irrespective of the results of any inquiry?

Sir George Young

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she said about the emergency services. I am sure that the House endorses her comments.

I think that the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority will want to reconsider the shuttle design when the inquiries that I have announced have been completed. The safety authority approved the shuttle design before it was used by Eurotunnel and the other operators. Before approval was given, it carried out extensive fire modelling and full-scale fire tests on a loaded heavy goods vehicle. The CTSA would not have approved the design, had it not been satisfied that its concerns about safety had been met. It is independent of the operators. None the less, I am sure that the authority will return to this matter when we have the results of the three inquiries.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I, on behalf of my constituents, add my thanks to those of my right hon. Friend for the work of the Kent fire brigade last night? It was a tremendous tribute to its training and professionalism.

The question of open-sided or lattice-sided lorries was raised as long ago as 1991, when the Select Committee on Home Affairs looked into fire safety in the channel tunnel and serious concerns were expressed. Will my right hon. Friend please ensure that this issue is re-examined, and that attention is paid to the fact that, last night, although passengers should have been evacuated without injury, they were not? Will he ensure that the findings of the three inquiries are published, and that the necessary remedial action, whatever it may be, is taken?

Sir George Young

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks. As I have said, I am sure that the CTSA will re-examine the design of the wagons. I made it clear that the results of two of the inquiries will be made public. The third inquiry is the responsibility of the French authority, because it is the lead health and safety authority in this instance.

I also make it clear that I will contact the French Transport Minister to express my wish that he make public the results of his inquiries—as we intend to do with our two inquiries. I am sure that all bodies will want to ensure that the recommendations that emerge from the inquiries are pursued with vigour.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)

I, too, strongly praise the bravery of the victims and the heroism of the train crew and the emergency services. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be full public disclosure of the evidence examined by as well as the conclusions of the formal inquiry, the CTSA inquiry and the Eurotunnel report, together with the results of the safety tests on the wagons to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, so that the public know that, as a matter of priority, all safety aspects have been thoroughly reviewed and the necessary action has been taken?

Sir George Young

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put that question. I agree with him that it is important to reassure the public and to re-establish public confidence in the link. The results of the inquiries to be undertaken in the United Kingdom will be made public. Eurotunnel has made it clear that it wants to co-operate with the CTSA. I will be talking to the French to ensure that the results of their inquiries are published. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in the interests of re-establishing public confidence, it is important to be as open about the inquiries as one possibly can be.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

May I express my concern for those who were in the channel tunnel last night in very dangerous and difficult circumstances? May I also raise the issue of enclosed freight wagons? I understand that the only reason why the wagons are not enclosed is the fact that a mathematical error was made in the adding up of the weights, which means that the axles cannot take an enclosed wagon.

There are other safety concerns. A passenger train behind the freight train was unable to continue on its journey. We have always been told that, if there were a fire in a train moving through the channel tunnel, that train would continue and the fire would be put out in a siding, so that all passenger trains following behind would be able to go through the tunnel safely.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking my constituents in Dover and Deal, who have experienced considerable difficulty today in coping with the ferry problems caused by the large amount of additional traffic through the port of Dover?

Sir George Young

I am sure that those conducting the inquiries will want to examine, among other things, the options available to the driver and the reasons for the decisions that he made. I think that it would be wrong to speculate at this stage, but those conducting the inquiries will want to know how the driver responded to the emergency with which he was confronted.

A fully enclosed design would have reduced the risk of fire spreading, but, as my hon. Friend implied, such a design would have other consequences. I am sure that the CTSA will want to revisit that issue, and I shall ensure that the inquiries deal with the other issues raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

May I add my congratulations on the way in which the emergency services tackled what could have been a disaster?

Is the Secretary of State aware that Eurotunnel has claimed in the past that the wagons were designed in such a way that they could resist fire for some 30 minutes, and could therefore be safely transported to the end of the tunnel? In the event of their being immobilised, they could be uncoupled, and the train could either continue forwards or be reversed out of the tunnel. In the event of the whole train being immobilised, passengers could be evacuated into the service tunnel, and the ventilation system could be controlled so as to blow the fumes and smoke away from them.

None of that happened. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that those factors are fully taken into account in the inquiries, and that the results and the tests are open to the public rather than being cloaked in secrecy, which is the current arrangement?

Sir George Young

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the 30-minute fire resistance refers to the passenger coaches rather than the wagons that were carrying the lorries. Certainly, the performance of the ventilation system is important; the inquiries will cover that, and I shall ensure that they take on board the other issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, in his inquiries, the weight attributed to the Kent fire brigade is taken into consideration? I understand from some of the accounts that a high proportion of the brigade's total resources were waiting to see whether they would be required. It is very unsettling for us, in this large county, to find that we are given no additional assistance to deal with the enormous transport corridor that is on our doorstep.

Sir George Young

I think that my hon. Friend will recognise that his question deals with a slightly broader issue than the issue covered in my statement. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, as it relates to the resources available to my hon. Friend's local authority.

As for pressure on fire services in Kent, the CTSA, which is conducting one of the inquiries, includes as one of its members Kent's county fire officer. I assume that he will bring the issue raised by my hon. Friend to the authority's attention.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the inquiries are not drawn so narrowly as to exclude examination of Eurotunnel's general stewardship of safety and security in the tunnel? Does he agree that safety and security are, in fact, indivisible? Has not Transec—which I believe is a department within the Secretary of State's stewardship—recently indicated that it nearly closed the tunnel, and are not search arrangements for both commercial vehicles and passengers under review? Is not the work about to be hived off to an agency? Indeed, that may have already happened.

As well as being reassured about the circumstances relating to the fire, and told why assurances were not fulfilled last night, the public need to be satisfied that security is of paramount importance, and that there will be no diminution in the level of security—although there are indications that that might happen.

Sir George Young

Security is important, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not the practice of Ministers to go into details of security arrangements for any particular transport mode. The inquiry will cover everything that is relevant and I remind him that the CTSA is independent of Eurotunnel. It has been set up under the treaty of Canterbury to advise and to assist the intergovernmental commission on all matters concerning safety in the construction and operation of the fixed link. Those terms of reference are broad enough to cover everything that is relevant to last night's incident.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Is it not to the credit of the Kent ferry industry that, with this terrible disaster in the tunnel stopping traffic going through it, that industry has risen to the challenge and, with virtually no disruption, has provided proper ferry services? Will my right hon. Friend join in the thanks that have already been voiced by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and that would no doubt be echoed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) to his constituents, who are also involved in the industry?

Sir George Young

Clearly, passengers wanting to get across the channel from both directions have faced enormous difficulties. I understand that there has been a good response from the ferry companies, which, despite today's difficult weather, have been able to accommodate many of the people who would otherwise have remained stranded.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This is not just a question of being wise after the event. May I refer to the precise question that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) tabled on 22 July, which was answered by the Minister for Railways and Roads, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts)? Why is it that the intergovernmental commission was not asked to examine or decline to examine the question of toxic fumes in relation to semi-open wagons? This was not only in a sense predictable, but predicted, foreseeable and foreseen by my hon. Friend.

Sir George Young

The CTSA needs no such directions or instructions from Ministers. It has been set up precisely to advise and assist the intergovernmental commission on all matters concerning safety in the construction and operation of the fixed link. It includes on its membership the Kent county fire officer, the deputy chief inspector of railways, civil engineers and people with health and safety expertise. It has the remit and the capacity to investigate matters that are of concern to it.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there was excellent co-operation between safety personnel on both the British and French side in what was a frightening incident, mercifully in contrast with the heavy and tragic loss of life on ferry boats in the past? None the less, unless there is a thorough investigation, one cannot be sure that worse things will not occur. Will he promise to include in the range of items to be investigated profoundly the prohibition of combustible materials, particularly those emitting toxic smoke and poisonous smoke fumes?

Sir George Young

I am sure that the inquiries will want to consider those particular issues, but my hon. Friend has reminded the House that the rescue system worked broadly as planned. Of course any casualties are deeply regretted, but there was no loss of life and that is a tribute to the emergency services.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

Does the Secretary of State recall that, when the House was considering the Act that authorised the construction of the channel tunnel, serious concerns were expressed about the implications of some of the shuttle service's design features and their possible implications for fire safety? Given his emphasis on the safety authority's role, does he also recall that serious concerns were voiced that its role was to react to Eurotunnel's proposals and to assess those, rather than to recommend what might be the most appropriate design to guarantee optimum safety? Will he therefore now ensure that, in the investigation and inquiry into yesterday's unfortunate accident, the safety authority is not precluded from considering whether alternative design arrangements, both for heavy goods vehicle wagons and for wagons carrying motor cars, where there is no segregation between passengers and vehicles, may not be the best arrangements for guaranteeing the public's safety? Will he ensure that the public's safety and the most appropriate design arrangement to secure it, are at the forefront of the minds of all the people who are responsible for considering the results of the inquiry?

Sir George Young

I believe that I am right in saying that both the hon. Gentleman and I sat on the Committee considering the legislation to which he refers. It took a substantially long time to get through the House, due in part, if I may say so, to his objections— [Interruption.]—not just on safety; it raised a number of broader issues. Of course, safety considerations must be paramount. As I said earlier, I am sure that the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority will want to consider precisely the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised—the design of the wagons concerned.

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