Foul play considered in Chunnel fire inquiry


A FRENCH magistrate investigating a fire that damaged the Channel Tunnel last week has not ruled out foul play as a possible cause, a spokeswoman for the rail link's operator, Eurotunnel, said in Paris yesterday.

Judicial sources said the idea that the fire was set alight deliberately aboard a truck shuttle was regarded as a remote possibility and not the most likely cause.

On Monday, Mr David Shaw, the Conservative MP for Dover, asked the British Transport Secretary, Sir George Young, in the Commons whether he was aware of allegations that the blaze "was sabotage by a striking French lorry driver".

Sir George replied: "I know that the French inquiry . . . that is under way will want to look at the cause of the fire and will want to look at the allegations that he mentions."

The fire occurred on November 18th, just after French truck drivers had begun a strike for higher pay, shorter working hours and earlier retirement.

They have gradually blockaded hundreds of highways, ports and borders.

Witnesses said a lorry carrying inflammable polystyrene was seen on fire before the shuttle train entered the tunnel. Eurotunnel's French co chairman, Mr Patrick Ponsolle, told Europe 1 radio that no possible cause could be ruled out.

Meanwhile, firefighters yesterday had to attend another incident in the Channel Tunnel just hours after Eurotunnel pleaded for a swift reopening of its passenger rail services.

Yesterday's fire started while cleaning and clearing work was going on at the scene of last week's shuttle wagon blaze 20 kms out from the French coast. Both English and French firefighting teams attended the scene and the fire was quickly put out. It is thought that sparks from welding work might have caused it.

Earlier yesterday Mr Ponsolle, said the safety authority should allow tourist services to start early next week. He said to do so was in the public interest.

He said the urgency in restoring operations was not driven by Eurotunnel's financial plight following last week's fire. But he estimated the current losses to the company because of the incident were £5 million to £7 million.

. The security guard who reported smoke coming from a lorry on a Channel Tunnel train before it entered the Tunnel was not in direct radio contact with the French railway control centre, the British Transport Minister, Mr John Watts, told the House of Commons last night.

Sir George Young stressed that the tunnel safety authority "has a legal right to refuse Eurotunnel permission to resume services until it is satisfied on safety grounds".