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Safety in Swiss tunnels needs urgent attention

The Austrian funicular train tunnel near Salzburg was turned into an inferno Keystone

Nearly one week after the accident in Austria in which 156 people died, Swiss experts are warning that safety standards in Switzerland's tunnels need urgent rethinking.

The Swiss Institute of Safety and Security said on Thursday the risk of fire in rail and road tunnels was currently underestimated, but that a number of simple measures could greatly improve the situation.

It said that, as a country of tunnels, Switzerland should take a leading role in campaigning for greater tunnel security in Europe.

The institute said the extreme conditions in tunnel fires meant that firefighters were often unable to help, despite being specially trained and equipped.

It said temperatures inside tunnels could rapidly rise to 1,000 degrees Celcius, and that toxic gases could kill people trapped inside within minutes.

Together with European fire protection organisations, the institute is calling for greater security measures in tunnels including more fire detectors, fire extinguishers, and escape routes.

Sprinklers installed in rail and road tunnels, the institute believes, could also serve to control the fire and keep the temperature inside the tunnel from reaching exorbitantly high levels.

This could help contain fires and prevent them generating large quantities of toxic fumes. The institute said this would greatly increase the chances of survival of people in the tunnel, and make it easier for firefighters to reach the blaze.

The Neuchatel-based institute said it had been campaigning for more security for years, and that it was time the opinions and research carried out by the experts was brought to public attention and taken into account.

The government is currently carrying out a regular review of rail tunnel safety, the results of which will be published next month. A spokesman for the transport ministry said the results would be published next month.

A review of road tunnels conducted by a special task force set up in the wake of accidents in Austria and France last year, said the authorities needed to spend up to SFr100 million ($56.2 million) to improve security.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR