Safety must trump schedule

Safety must trump schedule

We rely so much on the ability of movement of people and goods that when this is interrupted, whole supply chains can be affected. Ever since the Wright brothers managed a flight of 135 ft the exponential growth of air transportation has become so common place that we do not even think of jumping on a plane, reflects International Health & Safety expert, Toby Hayward, let alone paying a little extra to get our goods quicker.

The delivery of goods by sea has been with us for centuries but the vast amounts and diverse range of materials using this is now so huge that any impact can be equally vast.

As for the movement of people over land, highways are larger than ever, subterranean and overland rail faster and increasingly complex, and bus services more essential than ever. 

In this article we shall discuss some of the larger disasters and their impact on transportation, as well as having some thoughts on the future. How will our thirst for transportation, and the practical and common practice of linking types of transport together in ever larger “hubs” increase the risk of disruption and limit the ability of authorities to provide alternatives to us.

Early memories

I was ten years old and was standing on a train platform waiting for the delayed 1705 to Ipswich. The winter had been quite mild but as is usual with the UK, it was still damp and cold An announcement came over the rusted speaker on the open platform. There had been an “incident” and all trains were cancelled. Now at ten years old I had no idea what that meant, what I did know was there was now a flurry of pinstripe suits and pink newspapers heading for the exit towards a “bus replacement service”. 

One of the pinstripe clad gentlemen was a friend of the family and helped us through the melee of people all eager to limit their delay as much as possible. Onto the red double-decker bus we went and trundled through the roads to another station that had not been affected.

Unfortunately, these events were far too familiar for the frequent traveller in the 1980s. Since then I have travelled throughout the world and my delays have been infrequent, some notable, but in general, safety has trumped schedule, which for me is vitally important.

The challenges that our fellow humans in the customer service industry have in telling us about these delays is a subject that I will not go into here but it should be said that I wish them all the best and continue to try and be as polite as I can to them all.

The fact that I clearly remember incidents such as the above, clearly demonstrates the effect that they have on us.
A disruption to our increasingly busy lives is not just unwanted, but should be actively discouraged.

It falls to those teams in our transportation industries to ensure that these instances are not only minimised but avoided where possible. 

The following notable incidents outline some of the sometimes-tragic consequences that fire can cause.

Ship fire 

The Maersk Honam is a fully cellular container ship operated by Maersk Line. On the 6th March 2018 at 1520 GMT a major fire broke out in one of the forward cargo holds while the vessel was in the Arabian Sea. She was en route from Singapore to Suez with a cargo of 7860 containers and crew of 27.

Unable to extinguish the fire the sent out a distress signal and 23 crew members were evacuated to a nearby merchant vessel while the remaining four were declared missing (Maersk, 2018).

Two of the rescued crew members required medical attention with one dying from his injuries the following day. The other crew members remains were either recovered or, in the case of one, officially missing, being declared dead.

The vessel continued to burn even with the intervention of the Indian Navy into April by which time the ship had been taken under tow to the Port of Jebel Ali for the unloading of intact cargo (World Maritime News, 2018).

In the wake of the incident, Maersk launched an in-depth review of its stowage procedures with the help of the ABS classification society. Maersk, without having determined the cause of the Honam fire, will nevertheless implement stowage plan changes to its fleet worldwide in the coming months (Tirschwell, 2018).

Although these changes are most welcome the most shocking statistic to come from this incident is according to the insurer TT Club, container ship fires are occurring at an average rate of one every 60 days (Tirschwell, 2018).

Although the insurers knew of these statistics, this rate has now forced the whole industry to react to improve the handling of substances that are resistant to firefighting (Class 5 dangerous cargos).   

Road tunnel fire

The Mont Blanc tunnel is a highway tunnel in Europe, under the Mont Blanc Mountain in the Alps. The tunnel is one of the major trans-alpine transport routes, particularly for Italy, which relies on this tunnel for transporting as much as one-third of its freight to northern Europe.

The tunnel is 11.6 km in length, 8.6m in width and 4.35m in height. The passageway is not horizontal, but in a slightly inverted “V” which assists ventilation.

On the morning of 24th March 1999, 39 people died when a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire in the tunnel. After several kilometres, the driver realised something was wrong as cars coming in the opposite direction flashed their headlights at him; a glance in his mirrors showed white smoke coming out from under his cabin. 

This was not yet a fire emergency; there had been 16 other truck fires in the tunnel over the previous 35 years, always extinguished on the spot by the drivers. At 1053, the driver of the vehicle, Gilbert Degrave, stopped in the middle of the tunnel to attempt to fight the fire but he was suddenly forced back by flames from his cabin.

At 1055, the tunnel employees triggered the fire alarm and stopped any further traffic from entering. At this point there were at least 10 cars and vans and 18 trucks in the tunnel that had entered from the French side. 

Most drivers rolled up their windows and waited for rescue. The ventilation system in the tunnel drove toxic smoke back down the tunnel faster than anyone could run to safety. These fumes quickly filled the tunnel and caused vehicle engines to stall because of lack of oxygen. This included fire engines which, once affected, had to be abandoned by the firefighters. 

The fire had melted the wiring and plunged the tunnel into darkness; in the smoke and with abandoned and wrecked vehicles blocking their path, the fire engines were unable to proceed. The fire crews instead abandoned their vehicles and took refuge in two of the emergency fire cubicles (fire-door sealed small rooms set into the walls every 600 metres). They were rescued five hours later from a third fire crew that responded and reached them via a ventilation duct; of the 15 firefighters that had been trapped, 14 were in serious condition and one, their commanding officer, died in hospital. 

Some victims also escaped to the fire cubicles. The original fire doors on the cubicles were rated to survive for two hours. Some had been upgraded in the 34 years since the tunnel was built to survive for four hours. The fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), mainly because of the margarine load in the trailer, equivalent to a 23,000-litre (5,100 imp gal; 6,100 US gal) oil tanker, which spread to other cargo vehicles nearby that also carried combustible loads. The fire trapped around 40 vehicles in dense and poisonous smoke. Due to weather conditions at the time, airflow through the tunnel was from the Italian side to the French side.

Of the initial 50 people trapped by the fire, 12 survived. It was more than five days before the tunnel cooled sufficiently to start repairs. The cause of the fire remains disputed.

The tunnel remained closed for three years after the fire and the experience gained from the investigation into the fire was one of the principal factors that led to the creation of the French Land Transport Accident Investigation Bureau.

Apart from the subsequent manslaughter trial the Italian company responsible for operating the tunnel, SITMB, paid 13.5 million Euro to a fund for the families of the victims.

Passenger terminal fire

On the 7th August 2013, at approximately 0430 a fire broke out inside the main terminal building at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. No one was killed, but two people were hospitalised with non-life-threatening injuries. Incoming flights were diverted to Uganda, Tanzania and other airports in Kenya.

The fire originated in the immigration section of Unit I (used for international departures) rapidly spread to adjoining Unit II, which was used for international arrivals. The construction of the building (it was completed in 1978), a roof collapse in Unit I, and heavy traffic in the area hindered initial efforts to extinguish the blaze. Initial media reports showed some firefighters using buckets to fight the fire. Several groups, including the Kenya Army and firefighters from private companies, assisted in fighting the fire. After six hours, on-scene officials indicated that the fire had been contained

The fire significantly impacted all international air operations but in particular the export of flowers and green beans. A third of all flowers in Europe come from Kenya, with a special emphasis on rose production.

Further, at the time of the fire, Gulf airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways were all running daily flights, trying to tap not only the tourism market but to forge new trade into one of the fastest regions of the world (CNN-Defterios, 2013).

Looking to the future

The more that we continue to rely on hubs of transportation the higher the risk of disruption will be when a fire incident occurs. The stress that this places on the organisations, both private and governmental, in managing these incidents, as well as managing an increased service expectation, will also increase.

We must be prepared to not only bring the services back online as quickly as possible but also to test and explore our business continuity measures along with our traditional drill scenarios.

The ultimate costs to nations, areas and organisations can be crippling, both in the immediate and in the medium and long term. Such costs can also be immeasurable in terms of trust and confidence with market partners and stakeholders.

The public deserve a prime efficient service, but never at the expense of their safety, whether their day is disrupted, or not!

Although I have only mentioned the “traditional” forms of transport, innovation in autonomous and faster rail transport brings with it a new set of risks to which authorities and organisations must be prepared for. Otherwise we risk waiting for an incident similar to the ones above to occur.


Maersk, 2018: 

World Maritime News, 2018: 

CNN-Defterios, 2013: