Fire and fear beneath the sea Chunnel mishap Britain and France move farther apart after transport breakdown.

November 27, 1996

IT SOUNDS LIKE a movie. A guard spots a truck smoldering aboard a flatbed train shooting into the tunnel at 90 miles per hour. No one to tell, no way to stop it. Eleven miles under the sea, the fire breaks out. Smoke jams the emergency brakes so the train cannot speed to safety. The train and truck drivers are trapped under the chalk bed beneath the stormy sea. It is 20 miles to England.

Actually, 70 firefighters from France and England put the fire out. No one died in the Channel Tunnel's Nov. 18 accident. Some 34 were injured of whom eight were overcome by smoke. The greatest civil engineering project in world history and costliest boondoggle was set back again.

The Channel Tunnel was begun in 1880, suspended for English fear of a French invasion, resumed in 1987 and was more than a year late in opening in 1994. It has revolutionized travel between Britain and the Continent and is a colossal financial failure. The company that operates the Channel Tunnel owes $15 billion to rTC banks for construction and lost another $1.4 billion in its first full year of operation.

It is three distinct tunnels, one for railroad traffic in each direction and a service tube. The fire has closed the westbound (France-to-England) tube for months of repairs. Fourteen rail cars were destroyed, some fused with the tracks. Nearly a half-mile of tunnel was so damaged that firefighters could see bedrock.

Limited freight service has resumed in both directions in the eastbound tunnel. Eurostar passenger service, which whisked 20,000 passengers a day between London and either Brussels or Paris in three hours, is suspended. Price competition with ferries, hovercraft and airlines is relieved. As The Sun's Bill Glauber reported, the shopping sprees of British to the malls of Calais and French to the shops of Canterbury have stopped. Some of the isolation of the previous two millenniums is back.

The first meeting of the joint safety commission after the accident took 13 angry hours. Three investigations are under way. All this obscures how well the back-up measures prevented fatality. It is still a marvelous Chunnel.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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