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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 16:19 GMT
Mont Blanc tunnel needs new repair
Wreckage of vehicles inside the Mont Blanc tunnel
It is not the first time the re-opening has been delayed
The reopening of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, closed nearly three years ago after 39 people died in a fire, needs new repairs before it has even re-opened.


The date for the re-opening of Mont Blanc tunnel risks being postponed

French Transport Ministry
The tunnel is scheduled to re-open on Saturday, but the deadline could be delayed after part of an archway collapsed and fell on to the road at the weekend.

Officials are now considering a three-week postponement.

The problem was discovered on Sunday as French and Italian officials were completing last-minute safety tests.

The French Transport Ministry said cracks in the roof of the tunnel would have to be repaired.

A final safety check, which had been scheduled for Monday, has been called off.

Tremor

The cracks, which were discovered some 4.5 kilometres (three miles) into the tunnel, were reported to be around five metres (17 feet) long.

Gotthard tunnel blaze in Switzerland
The Gotthard tunnel blaze raised fresh concerns about safety
Officials believe they may have been caused by a slight seismic tremor that was detected in the region several days ago.

The company that operates the tunnel, the ATMB, said it rejected outright any suggestion that the collapse of the archway was caused by the recent use of sub-standard concrete.

"This section of the roof dates back to from the construction of the tunnel, which has been in existence for 35 years," it said. "There are no doubts about the quality of recent work."

If confirmed, the postponement of the planned re-opening on Saturday will be the third in two months.

The tunnel has been closed since March 1999, when a lorry caught fire inside the tunnel and spread to nearby cars.

The fire burned for two days, while firefighters tried to reach people trapped inside.

The tunnel is a key transport link, particularly for Italy - an estimated one-third of the country's freight used to pass through the tunnel.

For the French, Mont Blanc is a passage for exports to Italy, but is primarily a tourist route to the south.

Cars only

The loss of a second Alpine entry point to Italy - after an accident and fire killed 11 people in the San Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland last October - exacerbated Italian difficulties.

The tunnel reopened to traffic in December but the Swiss Government has introduced a one-way system for heavy vehicles which limits the through-traffic.

Even when the Mont Blanc tunnel re-opens, it will initially only be for use by cars.

A date for the return of freight traffic has not yet been set.

And there are several campaigning groups who never want lorries to return to the tunnel.

Before the fire, the tunnel was used by more than two million vehicles a year.

Over the last 25 years, the number of vehicles crossing the Alps has risen more than tenfold.

See also:

23 Jan 02 | Europe
Tunnel protest as delays drag on
05 Dec 01 | Europe
New delays hit Mont Blanc tunnel
21 Dec 01 | Europe
Swiss tunnel re-opens after fire
21 Dec 01 | Europe
Jury out on Gotthard tunnel
26 Oct 01 | Europe
France proposes one-way tunnels
25 Oct 01 | Europe
Analysis: Alpine road v rail
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