One of the greatest improvements to mobility in Iceland has been the construction of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel – although to a certain extent, this important piece of the traffic infrastructure has become a victim of its own success. Traficon’s Stijn Vandebuerie reveals how automatic incident detection is helping operator, Spölur, create a safer tunnel experience for the increasing number of daily tunnel users
Without a doubt, the construction of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel between 1996-1998 has been one of Iceland’s greatest improvements to its transport system since the opening of the Hringvegur Ring Road in 1974. But the tunnel is a landmark in other respects, too. Apart from being the world’s first undersea tunnel (under the North Atlantic) to be drilled through basalt in an active geothermal area, it was also the first major road-building project in Iceland to be financed by the contractor – meaning taxpayers didn’t foot the bill for the construction.
Running beneath the Hvalfjörður fjord, the Hvalfjörður Tunnel is 5.8km long and reaches a depth of 165m below sea level. Its opening on July 11, 1998, has reduced the distance from Reykjavík to the western and northern parts of the island by 45km. which for the driver means a journey of seven minutes instead of about 60 minutes.
During the design and preparation stages, it was estimated that up to 1,500 cars would use the tunnel each day, although the average daily traffic over the course of the first year alone ended up being 2,500, before rising to 4,500 cars in 2005. Why? Essentially more people opted to use the tunnel rather than drive around the fjord, so the number of cars in the country rose considerably more than was expected, hence road users traveled more than they did before as the tunnel presented a much less stressful and time-consuming option. A contributory factor, however, was that the toll fee to use the tunnel also reduced substantially since opening, which has had a subsequent impact on throughput.
Safety equipment – users’ safety first
Although the Hvalfjörður Tunnel was designed in accordance with the highest safety standards for comparable traffic structures at that time – including various safety equipment and procedures – it received a particularly bad rating in the 2010 European tunnel test, EuroTAP. The test is carried out each year by the German automobile club, ADAC. As a result of the low marks – bottom out of 26 tunnels studied – a number of enhancements were announced to be introduced over the course of the next few years by Spölur, the owner and operator, and the Icelandic government.
The Hvalfjörður Tunnel was not alone as a result of lack of safety standards being critiqued. Indeed, the EuroTAP 2010 results of inspections conducted earlier in the year in 26 major tunnels in 13 European countries show that a worrying number of operational tunnels across Europe will not be ready to comply with EU tunnel safety rules when they come into effect in 2014. The EU Tunnel Directive – which sets the minimum safety requirements for tunnels in the trans-European road networks – was adopted in 2004. Despite the undoubted progress made by many tunnel operators, however, practically 40% of the tunnels tested in EuroTAP 2010 did not score top marks. Among deficiencies such as lack of breathing equipment for firefighters and loudspeakers for emergency announcements, there were missing fire hydrants, insufficient escape route signage, and no barriers to close a tunnel in the event of a traffic incident. Lighting was also cited in 19% of the cases as being woefully inadequate.
Having come bottom of the class in the EuroTAP results this year, Spölur is looking to score top marks in the future, evidenced by its recent deployment of an Automatic Incident Detection (AID) system from Belgium’s automatic incident detection specialist Traficon. Just a couple of months after the EuroTAP tunnel test result, 57 Traficon VIP-T modules are already operational in order to quickly detect traffic incidents within the tunnel infrastructure. “The cooperation with ISMAR [Traficon’s system integrator] went very smoothly and the customers’ needs were clearly defined,” confirms Nico Verstraete, international sales manager at Traficon. “Their need was clear: the best AID – and as quickly as possible!”
The combination of both numerical data and visual image control sets video detection apart from all other detection systems, Verstraete feels. The immediate visual feedback received from video detection systems is a key element. Via monitors, the operator at the traffic control center can check whether the detector is working correctly or not. The combination of data and images is an enormous advantage in the field of automatic incident detection. Automatically generated alarms warn the operators as soon as an incident takes place and the video images provide a maximum of information, such as type, severity, location, as well as relevant traffic data.
When an incident occurs, the operator can see what has happened, how many vehicles are involved, the type and number of casualties, the status of the general traffic situation at that moment, and so on. This combination of data and images facilitates verification of alarms while the swift detection leads to fast intervention of emergency teams. Subsequently, this will help to avoid secondary accidents as well as the closure of lanes.
Tommy Van den Bergh, project manager at Traficon, feels that Traficon’s flexibility in delivering the project quickly was a vital ingredient in the success of this AID deployment: “We installed the whole AID system – including camera mounting, cabling, etc – in less than six weeks. Although the system is now up and running, we are still doing some final fine-tuning to make sure the system performs well in all weather and traffic conditions. We want to make sure the operator has full confidence in our system and sees it as an indispensible tool for dealing with incidents in case something goes seriously wrong inside the tunnel. Of course, I hope this tunnel will be saved from any disaster. The less they need our system the better. But in case of an accident, they can count on Traficon technology.”
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