HL Deb 19 November 1996 vol 575 cc1212-5

4.13 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an answer to a Private Notice Question which has been asked in another place on the fire in the Channel Tunnel. The Statement is as follows:

"At approximately 8.45 p.m. 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, fire-fighters 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; six were evacuated by the service tunnel transport system. Eight people were taken to hospital; two were detained, including the driver of the shuttle. Their condition is reported to be serious but not life threatening. I understand that they 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 they coped with this incident and in expressing relief that there were no fatalities.

"The French authorities have already begun a formal inquiry. This 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 is comprised of 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, M. 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.

"Until the investigations have been completed, it would be wrong of me 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 this can be done safely".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the answer given by the Secretary of State in another place. I associate these Benches with the tribute that he has paid to the courage and efficiency of the emergency services (British and French) whose work undoubtedly mitigated the situation and avoided an even worse occurrence. I also express our sympathy to those who suffered injury in this accident.

Perhaps I may now ask the noble Earl some questions which, hopefully, will be pursued in the various inquiries which are to take place. Before I do that, I express the hope that there will be considerable co-operation so far as concerns the inquiries to avoid unnecessary duplication. Can the noble Earl indicate when the first warning of fire was given, by whom, and to whom? Can he ensure that the shuttle design which was approved before the service began to operate will be looked at afresh, the paramount concern being the safety of the passengers even above the cost to the operator?

Will the noble Earl confirm that the normal procedure to be followed in the event of fire is for the train to continue on its route, if possible, into the open air since it is easier to deal with an incident if that is done? Will he also confirm that if the train does have to stop the part of the train which is on fire can be uncoupled and the part with the passengers on board able to proceed on its way? Presumably the inquiry will focus upon why the train stopped when it did. Can the Minister confirm that if the passengers have to be evacuated they should be directed to the walkway and into the service tunnel, because that is a separately ventilated area? Again, presumably the inquiry will focus upon why that was not done in this case.

Were the emergency fans, which are capable of blowing air in either direction in the tunnel to ensure that smoke is blown away from the passenger car before the passengers are evacuated, switched on? Again, will the inquiries look into that matter?

The House will be gratified that the noble Earl said that the reports following the inquiries to be carried on in the UK will be published, and that he will use his best endeavours to ensure that the French also publish the results of their inquiry. Will the evidence as well as the conclusions be published? I am sure that all of the inquiries will be very full and that confidence, which is extremely important, will be re-established at the earliest possible opportunity.

Lord Methuen

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to thank the Minister for the Statement that he has just made, and express our sympathy for those involved in this incident. I, too, should like to express my appreciation of the admirable way in which the French and British emergency services coped with the emergency.

We are pleased to know that, in general, the safety measures and practices designed into the Channel Tunnel and its operating regime worked as planned. We can also be thankful that at this stage there would appear to be no very serious injuries among those involved. However, a number of points need to be answered. I understand that there was a significant delay in the summoning of the Kent Fire Brigade, and that that amounted to about an hour after the French were informed. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true? Do extra precautions need to be taken with regard to the carriage of hazardous cargoes on vehicles using the tunnel? Furthermore, should the lorry shuttle vehicles be redesigned on a basis similar to those used for car shuttles, which are totally enclosed and fire resistant? Such vehicles would have minimised the possibility of the fire breaking out and contamination of the tunnel. They would also have enabled the shuttle vehicles to be withdrawn by a locomotive rather than stopping where they did.

Can the Minister say whether, as regards such an incident, there will be any read across to the ferries, in which vehicles are more closely packed? I can imagine that a more disastrous situation would have arisen as there would have been more passengers. Finally, what action has been taken about the growing concerns over the level of security checks on passenger trains on either side of the tunnel?

We welcome the fact that the results of the inquiry and, we hope, the evidence are to be published and made public.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I too join in the praise of the rescue services and extend my sympathy to those injured in the incident last night. The noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Methuen, raised several issues which, I am sure they realise, are totally the concern of the inquiry. When the results are made public we shall be able to learn from the incident. It occurred on French soil and it is for the French authorities to decide whether to hold a public inquiry. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is urging his French counterpart, M. Pons, to ensure that the French authorities publish their findings as soon as they properly can in order that lessons can be learnt by all concerned.

The freight shuttle was mentioned by both noble Lords. It was approved by the safety authority and the inter-governmental commission. Obviously, the inquiry will look at that again and the safety authority will doubtless revisit the issue. I shall ensure that the concerns expressed by both noble Lords are brought to the attention of those carrying out the investigations.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, at this stage, are the Government satisfied that the fire was wholly accidental in origin or is there even now a possibility that there was sabotage of some kind?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, it would be foolish of me to speculate on that matter. My noble friend will be aware that those details will be considered by the French authorities and no doubt by Eurotunnel and the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, without hint of speculation as to the cause of the fire or criticism of anyone, can my noble friend confirm that there were two engines on the train—one at the front and one at the back—each with one driver, and that there was one guard? Can he also confirm whether, if the drill of uncoupling had been implemented, the train could have been driven back to France within nine to 10 minutes? Furthermore, is my noble friend able to say whether the train was about 200 metres away from the service tunnel whose air pressure kept it free from smoke and which could have been reached from the train?

I too wish to express sympathy for the injured and admiration for the courage and expertise of the fire-fighters.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, my noble friend has made a number of points concerning the options available in what could have been a serious incident and was for those injured. Of course, various options are available and the crew must make a judgment at the time. The points about ventilation and so forth are matters for the inquiry.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, as security and passenger services have been mentioned, I wish to ask the Minister whether he is aware that the system of passenger checking at the Paris end of the service—which I use once a week—is most haphazard. Can it not be co-ordinated at both ends? For example, on passing through the security check at the Gare du Nord, one passes an officer of the law who will decide by looking at you whether you are the kind of person whose baggage should be more closely inspected. However, at this end of the tunnel one goes through a proper security check. As a good European, I have not objected when on several occasions I have been selected for special investigation of my baggage, but I believe that there should be some co-ordination and similarity of treatment at both ends.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point concerning security. At Question Time today I answered a Question relating to aviation and we touched on areas relating to railways. Our checking is among the finest in the world. Indeed, representatives of other countries come here in order to ascertain how to improve their own security. Of course, I shall make the noble Lord's queries available to my right honourable friend.