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Tunnel device targets truck fire risk

A car in flames on the A2 road near Faido in the Gotthard region - officials want to avoid accidents like these in tunnels Keystone

The Swiss authorities are to test a new anti-fire system at the Gotthard tunnel – the scene of a horrific blaze in 2001 in which 11 people died.

Designed by innovative Swiss software firm ECTN, the device detects heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) that are overheating. It is said to be the first of its kind in Europe.

The two-way Gotthard tunnel, a main traffic axis which links north and south Europe, can carry up to 1,000 vehicles an hour. At 16.9 kilometres long, it is one of the longest road tunnels in the world.

In October 2001 two trucks collided head-on in the Gotthard in what was one of the worst ever road accidents in the country. Since then around SFr50 million ($49.2 million) a year has been spent on improving tunnel safety in Switzerland and officials are keen to avoid another deadly fire.

The Federal Roads Office will pilot the anti-fire device, known as a hotspot detector, at the north side of the tunnel. The trial starts at the end of this year.

“This system enables the police to locate possible causes of vehicle fires such as the engine or tyres overheating,” Roads Office spokesman Frédéric Revaz told swissinfo.

Last year around 14 vehicles were recorded as emitting smoke or being on fire in the tunnel. There were no fatalities.

Scan and alert

The heat sensitive device works by scanning coaches and lorries and sending 3-D colour images, which pinpoint the source of heat, back to the tunnel control centre.

Management and the police are alerted if the temperature rises above certain critical values in the vehicle axles, brake pads or turbochargers. The vehicle would then be removed from the area.

The pilot phase is scheduled to run for at least a year at a cost of SFr350,000.

“We will try to see exactly what are the standards we have to use for the device because the system has to be absolutely accurate and make the difference between a truck which is normally very hot because it has driven thousands of kilometres and one which really has a problem,” explained Revaz.

The steep approach to the tunnel is another reason why coaches and trucks – which are at most danger of getting too hot – can overheat, added the spokesman.

HGVs are already stopped before going into the Gotthard to ensure that only one vehicle is let in every 20 seconds – a safety measure imposed after the 2001 fire. The system would take advantage of this short break to perform the scan.

“Maybe such a system can prevent accidents and fires inside the tunnel in the future. It’s a really big improvement in security,” said Revaz.

A first in Europe

The hotspot detector is the brainchild of ECTN, which is based in Nidwalden in central Switzerland.

“This is as far as we know a system which is the first of its kind in Europe,” company spokeswoman Kathy Hirst told swissinfo.

“It already exists in the rail industry to a certain extent but as far as road traffic is concerned it is a new system,” she added.

If the pilot phase is successful and the device approved, it would be extended to the south side of the Gotthard as well, said Hirst.

ECTN is also hoping that the system will eventually be considered for other tunnels in Switzerland.

Reto Habermacher, chief of Uri police, one of the cantons which along with Italian-speaking Ticino borders the Gotthard tunnel, told the Neue Luzerner Zeitung that he welcomed moves to improve tunnel safety. In his experience, large trucks are the most prone to overheating.

Habermacher said that the feed system for HGVs had already increased tunnel security, as had a change in driver attitude.

“Many drivers are behaving in a more disciplined way,” he said. “Awareness has been raised and people are more conscious today of the dangers.”

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

The fire in the Gotthard road tunnel on October 24, 2001 killed 11 people: four Germans, two French citizens, two Italians, two Turkish nationals and one Swiss.

The blaze started after two trucks collided. One of the vehicles crossed the centre line hitting an oncoming truck.

A few seconds later fire broke out, fuelled by the contents of the two trucks. One of the drivers survived, but the other was found dead 300 metres away.

The speed at which the blaze spread and heavy smoke prevented a number of car occupants from reaching safety.

It wasn’t until the next day that fire crews were able to reach the accident site and discover the bodies.

According to the Federal Roads Office, all motorway tunnels with a length of more than 600 metres were inspected following the 2001 Gotthard accident. Immediate measures such as signalling systems were implemented.

Since then SFr50 million has been invested annually on tunnel safety in addition to normal tunnel maintenance spending.

New guidelines for tunnels, both new and old, were issued in 2004.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR