Tunnel Tests 2007

Mersey road tunnel outshines younger Euro rivals

Mersey Queensway Tunnel, by far the oldest of 51 road tunnels inspected across Europe this year, has kept pace with increasingly demanding safety standards in the latest Euro Tunnel Assessment Programme (EuroTAP) survey, the AA reports.

Although still rated 'acceptable, as it was after an inspection in 2002, major investment has enabled the construction of a network of tunnel-user escape routes and refuges that are protected against heat and smoke. Tunnel inspectors gave Queensway high marks for its lighting and power systems, as well as good communications for users and emergency services throughout its 3.24-kilometre length.

Its older construction as a single-tube tunnel, with two-way traffic separated by white lines and no lay-bys or emergency lanes, severely handicaps its scoring potential, although a ban on HGV traffic and dangerous goods was recognised by EuroTAP inspectors. In comparison, some tunnels in Italy, Norway and Spain built between 33 and 69 years later were rated very poor in the survey.

The inspector, one of Europe's leading tunnel safety engineers, praised the Queensway Tunnel for:

  • traffic information radio reception throughout the tunnel
  • effective escape and rescue routes with well-signed exits, sufficiently protected against smoke and heat
  • video surveillance throughout
  • adequate provision of emergency phones and fire extinguishers
  • a ventilation system capable of clearing smoke
  • good radio communications for emergency services throughout
  • a tunnel control centre staffed around the clock
  • control staff trained regularly and tested with emergency drills

He identified some shortcomings:

  • no automatic detection of traffic incidents
  • no automatic fire alarm system
  • no lay-bys or emergency lane
  • neither the ventilation system or tunnel closure procedures activated automatically when the fire alarm is triggered

Queensway was built when only a few cars would use it at any one time. Now 32,000 cars pass through each day, although HGVs and vehicles carrying dangerous goods are not permitted. While three of these shortcomings relate to automatic systems, Mersey Tunnels have the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week presence of control room and mobile patrol staff to facilitate the a prompt human response.

What the AA says

Paul Watters, head of roads and transport for the AA, a leading partner in the European Tunnel Assessment Programme, said: "EuroTAP in the UK is unique in Europe by revisiting tunnels to encourage continuous improvement. Users of the Mersey Queensway Tunnel can take heart that Merseytravel, the Passenger Travel Authority responsible for its infrastructure and management, have been keen to facilitate these independent tests to help guide investment and development in both their tunnels. It is a credit to those responsible for Mersey Queensway that it has faired so well in what is a very tough test."

"Staying safe is not only the responsibility of tunnel operators – drivers should familiarise themselves with emergency procedures when going through tunnels, particularly if they are regular users. In January this year, 29 cars, 9 HGVs and a bus collided in Austria's Ehrentalerburg tunnel. Despite the carnage, there were no fatalities and only 12 injured. Around 150 people were able to leave the tunnel safely in what the rescue services described as 'a miracle'."

Future improvements

Other UK tunnels have improvements planned, some driven by the results of previous EuroTAP surveys:

  • Mersey Kingsway A new PA system will be commissioned shortly. Other ongoing work includes the provision of new 'variable message signs' and enhanced traffic CCTV with incident detection.
  • Blackwall Tunnel (southbound) No current information available.
  • Blackwall Tunnel (northbound) Consultants have reviewed its safety with a view to a major refurbishment, planned to start in 2007 and be completed by 2009.
  • Rotherhithe A new state-of-the-art emergency communication system has been installed. Further refurbishment may be postponed to avoid the Olympic games in 2012.
  • Tyne Construction of the second Tyne tunnel is due to start late 2007/early 2008, with completion set for 2011.
  • Dartford No current information available.
  • Medway Improvements plans are being developed to upgrade the CCTV, environmental monitoring and fire detection systems, which will then be linked to the control centre for 24/7 monitoring. Fire protection systems are currently being investigated.

Of the 51 tunnels inspected across Europe by EuroTAP engineers, 18 were rated very good, 11 good, 12 acceptable, 3 poor and 7 very poor.

Read the full latest Euro Tunnel Assessment Programme (EuroTAP) survey.


30 April 2007