Ten years after the tragedy of 2001, the Gotthard is one of the safest road tunnels in Europe thanks to new safety features and improved emergency response.
The date was October 24, 2001, the time 9.39am. Inside the Gotthard tunnel, traffic was running smoothly. Suddenly, one kilometre short of the south entrance, a truck veered out of control.
“I tried to avoid it, but it just came right at me,” said Italian truck driver Bruno Saba afterwards.
When the crash happened, Saba thought immediately of the petrol leaking on the roadway and the tyres he was transporting - all highly flammable. Within ten minutes he was out of the tunnel, taking 20 stranded motorists with him.
A few moments after that the inferno broke loose. Flames spread over 300 metres and the temperature reached 1,200 degrees celcius. Eleven people died in what would be remembered as one of the worst road accidents in Switzerland or indeed in Europe.
“An accident could happen even today, with more deaths,” admits Marco Grassi of the Gotthard Control Centre.
In the two-way tunnel, the possibility of a head-on collision cannot be discounted. Also, driving at 80 km/h in a tunnel 17 kilometres long requires maximum concentration.
“But in the event of an accident like the one ten years ago,” he emphasises. “The number of victims would now be fewer.”
Please, no picnics
We are in the Control Centre at Göschenen, in canton Uri, a few metres from the north end of the tunnel. On dozens of screens, staff are monitoring what is going on inside and outside the tunnel.
With a daily flow-though of about 17,000 vehicles, they can’t afford to let up their concentration for a moment - particularly because sheer bad driving is not uncommon.
“Some people will try to overtake or go back in the opposite direction,” says Marco Grassi, who has worked here for 30 years. “One time I even saw a family parking on an emergency lay-by for a picnic.”
In spite of such occasional bizarre behaviour on the part of motorists, the number of traffic accidents inside the tunnel has in fact decreased. There were over 40 accidents annually before 2001; now they are down to ten in 2010, none of them fatal, according to the Federal Roads Office.
The Gotthard is one of the safest tunnels in Europe, maintains Albert Tinner, truck driver for a Ticino-based international transport company.
“I’ve travelled it at least a thousand times and I’ve never had a problem,” he says.
The introduction of a “steady drip” approach (which allows just 150 trucks through per hour) and infrastructure improvements have made the Gotthard safer, according to Antonello Laveglia, a spokesman for the Roads Office.
“Lighting and signage in particular have been improved. And the escape exits are more clearly marked,” says Laveglia.
To take a closer look at the new control systems, swissinfo.ch went deep into the Gotthard by way of the safety passage which runs parallel to the main tunnel.
A little more than three metres wide, it feels like the inside of a cold, damp cave. A sign on the rock wall tells us that Airolo, at the south exit, is 16 kilometres away.
In the ventilation control centre, there is a little “chamber of horrors” – comprising melted and blackened tubes, cables and pieces of metal – to show how destructive fire can be. Fire, and above all smoke, are the main hazards in the tunnel. In 2001, it was a dense black cloud of smoke that caused most of the fatalities.
To avoid such accumulations of smoke, the ventilation system in the Gotthard tunnel has been redesigned. The new air vents are three times the size they were before and in case of fire their aperture can be adjusted.
“By opening the vents near the fire, and closing the ones further away, we can trap the smoke, which can then be vented out more efficiently,” explains Grassi.
Thermographic portal detectors at the entrance to the tunnel will also help to reduce the fire hazard, adds Laveglia.
“The system we are now testing is able to scan the temperature of the different parts of a vehicle. The idea is to pick out the trucks that are getting overheated before they enter the tunnel,” says Laveglia.
Ready in three minutes
Besides the infrastructure, the emergency response system has been improved, making it more professional. Since 2008, fire fighters from the Gotthard emergency response centres located at either end of the tunnel undergo particularly thorough training and use of state-of-the-art equipment.
“In three minutes we are ready to go, and in 15 we are in the tunnel,” Philipp Muhelm, one of the eight fire fighters stationed at Göschenen, tells swissinfo.ch.
The crew intervene not just in case of accidents or fires, but also when vehicles break down. “We are in action about 100 to 150 times a year,” he says.
Two new fire engines make it possible to get right up to the scene of an accident in spite of a blaze. Thanks to a device that sprays water on the road surface and on the windscreen, these vehicles are resistant to high temperatures.
“In the past,” adds Muhelm. “We had to wait to get outside the vehicle to put on our masks and tanks. Now we can do it inside the cabin. That really makes a difference!”
“The new system lets us react more quickly,” says Grassi. “But it won’t prevent accidents. Road safety basically depends on drivers having a sense of responsibility. My advice is: keep the required distance, and always be watching what is going on in front of you and behind you.”
Following the accident in the Gotthard tunnel on October 24, 2001, standards and guidelines for safety installations in Swiss road tunnels were improved and made more stringent.
According to a 2008 study by the Federal Roads Office, 126 of the 220 tunnels on the nation’s motorways do not fully conform to standards.
The main areas of weakness are: ventilation, escape routes, signals, and power supply.
The cost of renovating these 126 tunnels (which could take until 2020) is estimated at SFr1.2 billion ($1.33 billion).
Excavation for the Gotthard road tunnel started in 1970.
It was officially opened on September 5, 1980.
Cost of construction: SFr686 million ($760 million)
Escape exits: every 250m, giving access to the parallel safety passage.
Lighting: 14,000 fluorescent lights
Ventilation: 23 ventilators and air vents every 90m
Video surveillance: 86 cameras
Traffic: 3 million vehicles in 1980, over 6.2 million in 2010 (of which about 945,000 were trucks)
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch