12 Sep 2008

Passengers stranded by Channel Tunnel fire

10:52 pm on 12 September 2008

A fire in the Channel Tunnel was brought under control early on Friday, more than 12 hours after the blaze took hold on a freight train, paralysing rail traffic between Britain and the continent.

Eurotunnel, the company that operates the undersea rail link, said it hoped some passenger services could resume on Friday evening, but local officials in northern France thought trains would not run again until Saturday at the earliest.

No-one was killed in the fire, which turned one of the two main tunnel shafts into a smoking inferno and destroyed a train shuttle carrying lorries from Britain to France.

Firemen from both sides of the Channel worked through the night to douse the flames. Temperatures reached 1,000 degrees celsius while smoke reduced visibility to zero.

Magistrates have opened an investigation into the fire, which officials initially said started on one of the trucks loaded on the regular freight service.

Eurotunnel's chief executive Jacques Gounon told French radio there was "nothing to indicate" the fire was started deliberately. He said some of the truck drivers who were travelling in a sealed compartment in the shuttle had to smash windows to escape, confirming an eyewitness account in the French press.

Six people were taken to hospital after inhaling fumes and eight others suffered cuts and bruises.

About 40,000 people a day use the tunnel to travel between Britain and continental Europe and thousands of passengers were left stranded. Huge queues of trucks built up on either side of the Channel, while some drivers switched to nearby ferries.

Opened in 1994, the Channel Tunnel is 51km long, including a 38km stretch that runs some 40 metres under the sea. It is the longest undersea tunnel in the world.

There have been two previous blazes in the tunnel, both involving transported trucks.

In November 1996, a truck caught fire causing one of the two main tunnels to be closed for a month and freight traffic to be halted for seven months. In August 2006, there was another blaze on a truck, but there was no serious damage done.