Tunnel fire safety systems

7 December 2007  •  Author(s): Dr. Ricky Carvel, Assistant Director, BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh

In the past decade, over four hundred people worldwide have died as a result of fires in road, rail and metro tunnels. Fires in tunnels have destroyed over a hundred vehicles, brought vital parts of the European road network to a standstill – in some instances for years – and have cost the European economy billions of Euros. Tunnels are being upgraded, research is being carried out and new technologies are being developed, but are our tunnels becoming safer?

The recent fire in the Burnley Tunnel in Melbourne, Australia (23 March 2007) involved a collision of two heavy goods vehicles (HGV) and two cars. The fuel tank on one of the HGVs ruptured in the crash, resulting in a small explosion and a fairly large fire was produced instantly. This fire was probably more severe than the fire which resulted from the collision of two HGVs in the St Gotthard Tunnel, Switzerland, in October 2001. That spread to involve a long line of vehicles, claimed 11 lives (nobody died in the actual crash) and destroyed a significant length of the tunnel interior. Yet the fire in the Burnley Tunnel did not spread much and no lives, beyond the three who died in the collision, were lost.

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