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Mixed results in survey of Alpine tunnel safety

A survey of tunnel safety in eight European countries, including Switzerland, has been published in the wake of last year's fires in the Mont Blanc tunnel, linking France and Italy, and Austria's Tauern tunnel which killed a total of 51 people

A survey of tunnel safety in eight European countries, including Switzerland, has just been published in the wake of last year's disastrous fires in the Mont Blanc tunnel, linking France and Italy, and Austria's Tauern tunnel which killed a total of 51 people.

The results, published in Brussels, show a definite need for improvements.

Of the European road tunnels tested, the safety level in six of them is described as 'bad'. Italy's Fornaci Tunnel and the Alfonso XIII Tunnel in Spain were labelled 'very bad'.

At the other end of the scale, the highest overall rating went to the Gubrist Tunnel near Zurich, which was described as 'good', along with seven others. The largest group fell into the 'satisfactory' category, but no tunnel in the survey received the highest rating of 'very good'.

With the help of an independent technological consulting firm, the participating motoring clubs established a number of safety criteria. These included lighting, emergency exits, ventilation systems, the level of training of tunnel fire-fighters, and emergency broadcast systems to inform drivers of emergencies and escape procedures.

Five Swiss tunnels were inspected by the Touring Club of Switzerland - the TCS. In addition to the 'good' rating given to Zurich's Gubrist Tunnel, the heavily-used Belchen Tunnel on the motorway to Basel was labelled 'satisfactory'.

But three other important Swiss tunnels: one near Lugano and two near Chur were classified by the TSC as 'causes for concern'. These three tunnels were judged to need improvements in emergency exits, communications, and fire-fighting services.

Europe's longest road tunnel - the 17-kilometre Gotthard connecting the Swiss cantons of Uri and Ticino - was not included in this survey, since it was already inspected last year. It is considered a safe tunnel, although the TCS has voiced concern that its single-tube design increases the risk of fatal accidents by a factor of six, compared to tunnels with lanes in separate tubes.

This survey is not official, although it will certainly help the authorities in identifying and correcting potential safety problems. Maintenance of tunnels falls under cantonal jurisdiction, although the federal government is soon to publish its own study on the issue.

The Touring Club of Switzerland says the corrective measures needed to improve this country's road tunnel safety are not expensive and easy to implement.

By Bob Zanotti

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