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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Scheme to make Channel safer
Alastair Darling
Alastair Darling opened the new coastguard base at Dover

A new tracking system designed to turn the English Channel into one of the world's safest shipping lanes has been unveiled.

The system will provide information on the exact position of the hundreds of ships which pass through the Dover Straits each day.

Transport secretary Alastair Darling viewed the system in action on Monday when he officially opened a 4m refurbishment of the coastguard building in Dover.

The stretch of water between Kent and the north French coast is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Mr Darling unveiled a plaque commemorating the new tracking system - called the Vessel Traffic Management Information System (VTMIS) - and the refurbishment of the coastguard station, on top of Dover's famous white cliffs.

The Dover Strait is like a dual carriageway with hundreds of ships going in one direction and the other at any one time
Chief coastguard John Astbury

He praised the work of coastguards around the UK's coasts and the role they play in saving hundreds of lives annually and said VTMIS would play an important part in the continuation of that work.

He said: "We have got a good safety record but that is something we want to build upon and we want to make sure we can do even better so this facility is absolutely vital to achieving that."

The new system is being heralded as one of the best of its kind in the world, and the Dover base will be used to train maritime professionals from around the world.

The Tricolor
Cargo ship The Tricolor sank in the Channel last December

VTMIS pulls in information from a variety of sources and broadcasts from ships to build up a complete picture of the Dover Strait, which is separated into two lanes of shipping moving in opposite directions, much like a road.

Chief coastguard John Astbury said: "The Dover Strait is like a dual carriageway with hundreds of ships going in one direction and the other at any one time, as well as the dozens of cross-Channel ferry trips made each day across those lanes.

"This is one of the most sophisticated systems that is currently being used anywhere in the world and will go a long way to preventing accidents and improving safety in the Channel."

Mr Darling was also shown around the control room at the port of Dover and saw the crew of an RAF Sea King helicopter demonstrate a cliff rescue operation.

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