There are no official statistics on fires in underground transport systems. In order to get an idea of the frequency of fires, the International Fire Academy records all fire incidents in road and rail tunnels, which are reported by German-language media. This page provides an overview of the statistical evaluations as of 31. October 2019.
The acquisition criteria
The tunnel fire statistic of the International Fire Academy records all incidents in road and railway tunnels for which the fire services have been alerted and about which we have found reports in German-language online media. Therefore, the statistic only indicates how many incidents have occurred.
Incidents are registered in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. All incidents that led to the alarm of the responsible fire services are counted. This includes vehicle fires in which the driver managed to drive out of the tunnel.
3.3 fires per month
In the period from 1. January 2012 to 31. October 2019, 271 incidents were registered in road and railway tunnels in the three countries Switzerland, Germany and Austria. This corresponds to approximately 3.3 recorded fires per month. In comparison to other types of deployment, this frequency of incidents is low, but it is high enough that tunnel fire operations can hardly be count as rare. In particular, several fires were observed in the heavily used road tunnels; for example, there have been eleven incidents in the Gotthard road tunnel and four in the Engelberg tunnel near Stuttgart.
Caution should be exercised when interpreting this statistic, as the available incident reports are often incomplete and inaccurate, and sometimes even contradictory. The fact that a fire service was alerted to a tunnel operation and reported on it can be regarded as certain.
Because of its incomplete nature, the statistic does not allow any statements to be made about the increase or decrease in the frequency of fires, especially since the reporting of small scope incidents is rather accidental. Vehicle fires that do not lead to serious damage or significant traffic disruption can remain entirely unnoticed by the media, even if the fire services involved consider the operation to be critical and difficult. Conversely, even false alarms can produce big headlines if they lead to large-scale traffic chaos.
3/4 road, 1/4 rail
Despite all the inadequacy, the statistic over the multiannual observation period show the first stable trends: Road tunnels account for around three quarters of all incidents (199 cases) and rail tunnels (72 cases) for a quarter. The latter are mainly subway or light railway lines. There are frequent reports of fires from waste or electrical installations; Fires in rail vehicles are rather rare. Of the fires in road tunnels, around 69% are in cars and 27% in trucks. In eight cases (4%) coaches were affected.
Nine fatalities, thousands affected
The - as mentioned incomplete - statistic from the International Fire Academy has recorded nine casualties since the beginning of 2012. This could be an indication that tunnels have become safer. Because from 1999 to 2006, a total of 71 people died in the fires in the Mont Blanc, Tauern, Gotthard and Via Mala road tunnels alone.
According to media reports, more than one thousand people were directly affected in a total of 8 incidents. They were evacuated or had to flee or be cared for. Of these, seven incidents were on subways. There was only one such incident in road tunnels: In December 2015, a truck burned down in Hamburg's Elbe Tunnel. Many people had to flee or were stuck for hours in more than 50 km of traffic jams.