Anybody who has driven along the SS 340 near Cernobbio on Lake Como will be familiar with the 25-year old Cernobbio tunnel. With its bright walls, good lighting and a few lay-bys, this tunnel makes a fairly good impression. Around 18,000 vehicles roll through this tube every day, however, going in both directions. Although there is a ban on the transport of hazardous goods, the 2,700 HGVs that drive through the tube every day are a factor that must be considered, especially since congestion is an almost everyday occurrence. There is just a single emergency exit over a distance of almost two and a half kilometres. However, it is doubtful whether this exit can be reached in an emergency, because the distance to be covered is long and the escape route is not signposted. Emergency phones are non-existent. There is no video surveillance, no automatic traffic detection, no fire extinguishers and certainly no automatic fire alarm system that could activate ventilation which is inadequate anyway.
Who does what and when in an emergency is simply a matter of luck: a tunnel control centre, an emergency response plan, regular training for staff, emergency drills - nothing doing! With such shortcomings, you could almost overlook the fact that there is no possibility whatsoever to inform motorists if necessary using traffic radio, loudspeakers or variable message displays. Put in a nutshell, Cernobbio tunnel is the very opposite of a safe tunnel. As a result, the brightly lit, apparently welcoming Cernobbio tunnel came last in the 2008 tunnel test. This is the fourth time consecutively that Italy has come last.
But thankfully enough, shocking shortcomings of this kind were not found very often during this year's inspection of 31 tunnels in eleven European countries. In this, the tenth year of testing tunnels, ten tunnels will be pleased with their rating of "very good" and five with their rating of "Good". Another seven tunnels made the grade, receiving a rating of "Acceptable", and hence fulfilled the required minimum standards of the EU Directive on safety in road tunnels.
The honour of winning in this anniversary year went to the around 1.3 kilometre-long Pont Pla tunnel, opened in 2006, in Andorra la Vella, the capital city of the tiny state of Andorra in the eastern Pyrenees between Spain and France. The inspectors found Pont Pla Tunnel, a state-of-the-art, safe tunnel, the very opposite of the losing Italian tunnel. Everything that was criticized in the Italian tunnel was praised in the Pont Pla tunnel.
The losers The Cernobbio tunnel shares the lowest rating of "very poor" with six other tunnels: the Belgian Waasland tunnel in Antwerp, the Italian Breva tunnel (SS 340 near Menaggio) and, surprisingly, because it is brand new, the Marinasco tunnel (NSA 303 near La Spezia) and the Eikefet, Jernfjell and Matreberg tunnels, all of them in Norway. The Spanish Pando tunnel (AP 66 near Pola de Lena) and the German Universität Düsseldorf tunnel (in Düsseldorf) were rated Poor. The German tunnel would have received a rating of Acceptable had it not received very poor results in the categories of Traffic and traffic surveillance and Communication. This called for the knock-out criterion, thus lowering the overall rating for this tunnel. This means that nine of the 31 tunnels inspected failed to make the grade - a very high number, far higher than in previous test years.
Comparing the countries
Two of the five Italian tunnels tested received positive ratings - a glimmer of hope in light of Italy's customary weak results: the Serrone Tondo tunnel (A 3 near Contursi Terme), opened in 2007, received a rating of Acceptable and the Valsassina tunnel (SS 36 near Lecco) a rating of "good". However, there was no good news from Norway. All three Norwegian tunnels were rated "very poor", coming up behind Italy's last place. A round of applause goes to the tunnels in the Alpine countries of Austria and Switzerland: All nine tunnels tested received positive ratings even though the picture was only slightly marred by one rating of Acceptable in each country.
The most important shortcomings An emergency scenario makes the shortcomings clear. Imagine that a lorry crashes into the tunnel wall and leaking petrol catches fire. Precious minutes pass before you even notice the danger. You want to leave the tunnel. The next emergency exit is 500 metres away. It will take you around eight minutes to reach it. Ten minutes have now passed since the fire broke out. But after ten minutes, heat and smoke have already become critical. The longer the distance to the emergency exit, the longer you will be exposed to smoke and toxic fumes. But in more than half of the tunnels inspected, the distance to the next emergency exit or the portal was more than 500 metres which is the minimum requirement of the EU Directive. Take, for instance, the Karawanken tunnel on the border between Slovenia and Austria with its impressive length of 7,864 metres. You can only leave this tunnel through the portals; there are no additional emergency exits. If you find yourself in the middle of the tunnel, for example, you will have to walk almost four kilometres to reach a portal.
Your escape will be made even more difficult if you have to find your way through dense smoke without any evacuation lighting or without knowing which is the shortest way out of the tunnel. In five of the tunnels inspected, you will be literally forced to grope in the dark.
It now becomes clear just how important ventilation is for your rescue. It should extract as much smoke as possible out of the tube. In more than a quarter of the tunnels, the ventilation systems were not capable of this. This was the case, for instance, in the Sachseln tunnel in Switzerland. This tunnel which is more than five kilometres long, has only one emergency exit in the middle of the tunnel. Or in the Norwegian Matreberg tunnel. No need to worry about ventilation in this tunnel - there is none! Nor are there any additional emergency exits.
In some cases, you may not be able to immediately see the accident. Traffic comes to a halt and nobody knows why. You then have to rely on the information and instructions issued by tunnel staff. In more than half of the tunnels tested, there were no loudspeakers installed. In 42 percent of tunnels, traffic radio cannot be received throughout the tunnel, so that staff cannot use it to pass on information. And for motorists who have not yet entered the tunnel, it's all a big mystery: in 39 percent of the tunnels tested, inspectors found no variable information displays or barriers to clearly request motorists to "Stop".
Meanwhile, rescue measures are underway - quickly and effectively one would hope. You trust that it is so. For things to run smoothly, emergencies must be repeatedly trained. Regular drills with tunnel staff and rescue services, however, are not carried out in more than half of the tunnels. And what's even worse is the fact that in many cases the fire brigade may not have sufficient respiratory protection in order to reach you in the first place. If smoke is dense, this will slow down the fire brigade significantly, so that it could take them half an hour to cover a distance of 300 metres. In more than 45 percent of the fire brigades, respiratory protection does not even last an hour. That's just about enough time to retreat.
The positive trend in recent years came to a sudden stop this year. The results of the 2008 tunnel test were the worst in five years. This may be just a coincidence and due to the choice of tunnels. The fact of the matter, however, is also that there are still many tunnels in Europe which need to be upgraded and refurbished.
For 10 years now, ADAC and its partner clubs have been dedicated to improving tunnel safety both in their own countries and internationally. The tunnel tests have generated an awareness of this topic. The fact that a lot has been improved in recent years is certainly thanks to the tireless work of the motoring clubs. And the results of this year's test show that this work will still be needed in the future. EuroTAP will not stop uncovering shortcomings and informing the public of this. EuroTAP will ensure that when it comes to tunnel safety, it is not just the packaging, but also the content which is in order.