Fire in the hole: tunnel safety in Asia

Despite thriving tunnel engineering all over Asia, the region's fire tunnel safety still ranks behind Western standards. Ahead of Arena International's fire safety event in Singapore, Elisabeth Fischer talks to World Road Association, Working Group on Air Quality, Fire and Ventilation co-chairman Fathi Tarada about the catching-up some countries in the Far East still have to do.


Road and rail tunnel engineering throughout Asia is booming, with currently some of the longest road and rail tunnels under construction in the Far East.

But while countries such as Japan have been building tunnels to the highest standards for some years, others are just about to incorporate technologies such as fire detection and suppression systems in their tunnels for the first time.

The introduction and application of global fire protection and safety standards in Asia, which is still hampered in parts by severe know-how and funding deficits, will be one of the main subjects debated at Arena International's Fire Protection and Safety in Tunnels Asia event, taking place on 21 and 22 February 2012 in Singapore.

In the run-up to it, World Road Association (PIARC) Working Group on Air Quality, Fire and Ventilation co-chairman and Tunnel Operations Committee in-coming secretary Fathi Tarada talks about the drivers for fire protection in the region, as well as how the international transport community can help tackle the lack of fire safety standards.

Elisabeth Fischer: How would you rate current tunnel fire protection and safety standards in Asia?

"It is far more cost-effective to invest in safety, than to suffer the consequences of fire incidents."

Fathi Tarada: A comparison of Asian and Western standards would be quite difficult and it's certainly not accurate to say that Asian standards are necessarily inferior.

Certain Asian countries such as Japan have arguably enjoyed superior fire protection in their road tunnels for the last 30 years or more, due to their installation of deluge fire suppression systems.

Recently-built metro systems such as those in India and Singapore have been based on the latest, Western-inspired standards, which in many ways provide a higher level of safety compared to the first metro systems built in Europe, such as the London Underground.

Apart from the issue of infrastructure though, the level of training of tunnel operators and the management of rail and road tunnel operations does vary considerably within Asia.

EF: What countries in particular have some catching up to do?

FT: Developing countries such as Vietnam, with large infrastructure development projects but with limited funds, have some catching up to do.

The level of installed safety systems for such projects is dependent on the selected procurement strategy, and the preferences of the funding bodies, which may include both the national governments and international development agencies. It can also depend on the national standards of the consultants' and contractors' home countries, which may well be based in Europe or Australasia.

Quite apart from the installed safety infrastructure, there is also the issue of how the management of tunnel safety, the training of the tunnel operatives and fire brigade are all arranged.

The contractors may leave a perfectly 'safe' tunnel after construction, but do the locals know how to safely manage, operate and maintain the tunnel?

EF: What are the drivers for fire protection in Asia?

FT: Tunnel fires have had a devastating effect in some Asian countries.

"Over the long term, the development of local know-how in underground fire safety is the key to enhance tunnel fire protection in Asia."

These events generate political pressure for a high level of tunnel safety, which can then be reflected in engineering standards for structural fire protection, evacuation, detection and suppression systems, to name just a few.

But because tunnel fires are so rare, the link between losses due to tunnel fires and the adoption of improved tunnel safety standards is a very tenuous one.

It's more likely that Asian standards for fire safety will evolve over time in response to improved knowledge of the risks, enhancements in technology, results from tests and through comparison with other standards.

The lack of adequate standards in certain developing countries in Asia is a reflection of the fact that these countries have not yet had time to evolve suitable standards, or lack the funds and the quantum of projects to establish such standards.

EF: How can rail and road tunnel safety be improved?

FT: I think the first challenge is to enhance the awareness of tunnel safety as an important public issue, and Arena International's conference in Singapore this month is a good step in that direction.

More generally, decision-makers should place greater priority to the issue of underground safety when specifying, designing, building and operating tunnels. Asians actually have an opportunity to 'leapfrog' Western designs and specify safer systems, compared to older Western technology.

One of the ways they can do this is by investing in research and development in new fire safety systems. A good example of this is Singapore's Land Transport Authority's forthcoming full-scale fire suppression tests in tunnels, which will provide invaluable data for the specification of deluge systems.

As I mentioned earlier though, the training and management of tunnels needs particular attention, particularly where the installed systems are not quite up to the required standards.

EF: What are the barriers of implementing sufficient tunnel safety standards in Asia?

FT: In two words: knowledge and cash. Many newly industrialising Asian nations have a lack of knowledge of the risks to passengers in tunnels, and how to address these risks.

Even in developed Asian nations such as Japan, there is a strong need to exchange experience of tunnel accidents and fires and how to address such incidents.

With regards to the issue of funding, it is important that decision-makers consider societal costs and benefits over a sufficiently long assessment period, when considering safety-related investments.

Short assessment periods and a focus on project costs rather than societal benefits, is likely to lead to under-investment in safety.

EF: Is the use of outdated fire protection technology still a problem?

"Contractors may leave a perfectly 'safe' tunnel after construction, but do locals know how to safely manage, operate and maintain it?"

FT: There are certainly examples of outdated technology installed in certain Asian tunnels, as well as many examples of no fire protection being installed at all.

However, I do not see this as a purely Asian issue, since there are many such examples in Europe and elsewhere.

The solution, both in Asia and elsewhere, must be to continually review tunnel safety and ensure that the mitigation measures are still adequate to address the risks.

Any installed equipment such as fire detection equipment does have a definite lifetime, and will need maintenance and replacement at certain intervals. It should not be acceptable for tunnel operators to ignore such requirements.

Local or national authorities certainly can intervene to impose conditions for the continued safe operation of transport systems, for the benefit of the travelling public.

EF: Can the technology cope with the demands of modern rail and road travel?

FT: The increased traffic density and passenger numbers certainly pose a challenge to safety. However, I do not think that the challenge is insurmountable.

There are many technological innovations available that can make travel through tunnels safer, more comfortable and efficient.

However, the modernisation of tunnel infrastructure is usually contingent upon the availability of public funds. Turbulence in worldwide financial systems has drained public finances, and this has indirectly affected many tunnel modernisation projects.

We can only hope that our message as tunnel safety professionals keeps being heard: it is far more cost-effective to invest in safety, than to suffer the consequences of fire incidents.

EF: Is there enough being done to increase tunnel fire protection in Asia?

FT: Certain Asian countries such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore already have high tunnel safety and fire protection standards, which are equivalent or even higher than Western standards.

The real challenge is to encourage newly industrialising countries with new underground infrastructure to specify adequately high standards for tunnel safety, and then to operate and maintain a high level of safety throughout the lifetime of the asset.

Over the long term, the development of local know-how in underground fire safety is the key to enhancing tunnel fire protection in Asia.

EF: How can European and international bodies boost the adoption of improved standards in Asia?

FT: Both the International Tunnelling Association (ITA) and the World Road Association (PIARC) have published guidelines and best practices for the safe construction and operation of tunnels, which however are non-prescriptive.

Specifiers and operators of Asian tunnels still have to decide what level of safety is appropriate. In general, we can speak of a hierarchy of standards - international guidelines, national standards and project specifications. All three levels can be relevant to the level of safety in a tunnel.

International bodies also arrange workshops and seminars on tunnel safety, to bring the message to as wide an audience as possible. The ITA arranges training days in certain Asian countries and the new online PIARC Road Tunnels Manual is available in several Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

There is also increased participation of Asian countries in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Through such efforts, we can hope that travellers in Asian cities will benefit from better and improved safety standards when passing through their tunnels.


Arena International's Fire Protection and Safety in Tunnels Asia event takes place on 21 and 22 February 2012 in Singapore.