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Mont Blanc Tunnel  Reopens With Enhanced Safety Procedures - 2002-03-06

Europe's Mont Blanc tunnel, closed since a fatal fire in 1999, reopens to car traffic on Saturday. Its closure has caused heavy economic losses.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has welcomed the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel connecting Italy and France, one of Europe's most vital trade links.

It says the reopening will greatly facilitate transportation between northern and southern Europe.

The organization, along with transport ministers from Germany, Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland have set down safety rules for vehicles using Alpine tunnels. The procedures come in the wake of deadly tunnel accidents in Switzerland and France.

Jose Capel Ferrer is the transport director for the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe. He says public information campaigns in the Alpine countries are important to get the word out on accepted safety procedures.

"How to react, how to drive in a normal situation in tunnels, respect distances, respect the maximum speed. This is extremely important," said Mr. Capel Ferrer. "And in case of problem, technical problems with the vehicles how to behave in case, most particularly, in case of fire. In case of fire, it is important to stop the vehicle, to shut the engine and try to help extinguish, if possible, help injured people and then go away immediately. Don't expect to save your vehicles because you may not save even your life."

Mr. Capel Ferrer says many of the fatalities in last October's accident in Switzerland's Gotthard Tunnel were due to smoke inhalation and fire because people stayed near their vehicles.

The Mont Blanc tunnel has been closed for three years after a truck caught fire and killed 39 people.

In addition to safety procedures, improvements have been made to the Mont Blanc tunnel to enhance its safety, including an emergency pedestrian pathway, air supply, and exits. Trucks carrying dangerous substances will be prohibited from using the tunnel. Experts say Mont Blanc's capacity will be reduced.

Italians living in the border area with France have welcomed the news of the tunnel reopening. They say it signals the end of three years of isolation.

An Alpine rail link between France and Italy is expected before the end of the year. The railway could potentially transport 50,000 trucks through the tunnel each year and cut down on pollution.