The trains, trams, and subways that comprise the broad term “rolling stock” represent the oldest form of mass land transportation that is still in use today. Rolling stock in some form has been with us for over 200 years and remains popular. Rail is one of the most energy-efficient transport modes, responsible for 9% of global motorized passenger movement and 7% of freight but only 3% of transport energy use. Rolling stock conveyances are so popular because they are efficient, have less overall environmental impact than other forms of transportation, are a relatively inexpensive way to move freight, and most of all, rolling stock is safe.
In terms of safety, rolling stock is second only to commercial airlines. In the U.S. most incidents involving rolling stock are the result of a collision or derailment. In the UK, 78% of all rail fatalities are due to “suicide by rail”. Fires on rolling stock are thankfully rare events with many of them being secondary to a collision or derailment.
But fires on rolling stock do occur, and often with catastrophic consequences. Since opening in 1994, the English Channel tunnel or “Chunnel” has experienced several high-profile fires that, while not resulting in fatalities, have resulted in significant downtime to the rail service. In other instances, those involved in rolling stock fire incidents have not been nearly so lucky.
One of the most significant, in terms of lives lost, is the Kaprun disaster that involved a funicular railway in Austria on November 11, 2000. In this incident, as the train was ascending through a tunnel, fire broke out in an unoccupied cabin that quickly spread throughout the conveyance. Before the event was over, the fire killed 155 people: 150 in the cars where the fire originated, two on the descending companion train, and three at the rail station on the summit. Only twelve people managed to survive the ordeal.
Rolling stock fire protection is complicated by the limited space, constant vibrations and changes in temperature and humidity.
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