LM Comment
  6:32 pm GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar
26 November 1996

Chunnel Panic

The furore about the fire on a Channel Tunnel train last week represents much ado about nothing, writes Dave Cowlard, spokesman for the Urban Research Group, who has had his planned Chunnel trip to Paris postponed by an irrational fear of technological progress

The fire on le Shuttle on Monday night seems to have confirmed all the prejudices of the Channel Tunnel's critics. The fact that the story dominated the headlines for most of the week in the UK tells us more about a society which is constantly on the look out for a disaster than the real scale of what happened. In many of the commentaries it was not hard to pick up on a barely concealed claim of 'I told you so'. In fact the fire was the event that everybody had been waiting for, as proof that the tunnel was a failed project from the word go.

Since its opening in 1994 the Channel Tunnel has received a constant bad press. Whether this was in relation to the supposed threats of rabies from animals sneaking across, or from the supposed threat from 'international terrorists', the consensus has been that there was nothing really to be gained by tunnelling from Kent through to France. This negative viewpoint not only denigrates the real achievement of such an fantastic engineering feat but serves as a justification for the lack of technological advances more widely experienced in everyday life.

The question raised by many of the Chunnel's critics, both before and after the fire, was why a tunnel was needed at all. Indeed the calls to return to the ferries are mounting by the day. But even at this level, the advantages of the rail link are plain to see. The most obvious being that by moving passengers and freight by rail under the sea means that the crossing is no longer at the mercy of the weather.

Looking at the fire itself, you would be hard pushed to describe it as anything more than an unpleasant incident - a catastrophe averted. In no way was it a disaster. A total of 34 people were involved and out of this number only eight were kept in hospital overnight. There was some relatively superficial damage to the infrastructure of the tunnel and a few trucks and their loads were lost. No doubt for those involved the fire was a frightening experience. But the clamour to describe the tunnel as a potential death trap is absurd. From the separate service tunnel via the luminous arrows which guide people to the exits, the tunnel has been designed to make evacuation as easy as possible.

Some editorial comments tried to balance technological achievement with the 'risks' of the tunnel. They claimed that 'it has taken this fire to make us properly respect our own achievement'. The question has to asked why the issue was barely mentioned in the French press if it was such a warning for us all. Le Monde relegated the issue to page 23 while most British newspapers led on the story. Thanks to the caution advocated by most commentators all passenger services through the tunnel have been suspended indefinitely. Why? There is nothing wrong with the second tunnel, the only thing holding up the resumption of services, and my planned trip to Paris, is a society gripped by caution and an irrational fear of the advances of the modern world.

Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk