Another fire inside one of Norway’s many tunnels that connect highways all over the country has raised new alarm over their safety standards. The state highway department (Statens vegvesen) reports that 42 of Norway’s 1,100 tunnels are especially at risk.
The tunnels most vulnerable to accidents and vehicle fires are those that are long and have steep descents and inclines. That can lead to vehicles’ brakes overheating and other mechanical trouble, reported newspaper VG this week.
The relatively new Gudvangatunnelen, in which a Swedish tour bus caught fire Monday with Asian tourists on board, is not considered a high-risk tunnel even though it’s 11.4 kilometers long. It’s been the site of two fires in as many years, though, because the mountain highways leading into it have steep inclines and descents that can also overheat brakes. One witness has claimed that he saw smoke coming from the bus’ brakes before it entered the tunnel and caught fire inside. The now-damaged tunnel on the main E16 highway between Oslo and Bergen is likely to remain closed “for several weeks,” highway authorities confirmed on Thursday.
“There are a few other tunnels in the area that also are steep,” Gudmund Nilsen, chief engineer for Statens vegvesen, told VG. “That can, in combination with among other things overheated brakes on a large, heavy vehicle, spark a fire.”
Trucks using the tunnel under the Oslo Fjord that connects Østfold and Vestfold at Drøbak have also had trouble because they need to brake during the long descent to the tunnel’s deepest point, and then climb on the other side. A truck caught fire inside that tunnel in 2005 and the tunnel is often closed because of accidents or vehicles experiencing trouble that block the lanes.
Major upgrades underway
News bureau NTB reported there have been 16 fires in Norwegian tunnels that have resulted in serious injuries or fatalities since 2004. Statens vegvesen said that 44 percent of the fires have occurred in those on the risk list, which contains most of the country’s undersea tunnels.
Major repairs and improvements are currently underway on tunnels, also within the Oslo area, to comply with EU directives regarding all tunnels over 500 meters long. All must be equipped with improved ventilation systems and fire extinguishers, along with control systems that can quickly close a tunnel in the event of accidents or fires.
As calls also went out for firefighters to get better training in battling tunnel fires, Nilsen said 148 tunnels still need to be upgraded by 2019, the EU’s deadline for its mandatory enhancements. Even though Norway is not a member of the EU, it generally must comply with EU directives under terms of its trade agreements with the union.
The state highway department expects it will spend NOK 8 billion on tunnel improvements over the next four years. “This is a big challenge, but we think we’ll meet the deadline,” Nilsen said. Various other maintenance projects are being carried out while the tunnels are closed for repairs. Motorists have been warned of ongoing traffic disruptions and delays in the meantime.