Chaos for 24 hours as fire closes road

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Thousands of commuters travelling in and out of the region were hit by major delays yesterday after the A12 was closed when a fire brigade van carrying an oxyacetylene cylinder caught fire.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Thousands of commuters travelling in and out of the region were hit by major delays yesterday after the A12 was closed when a fire brigade van carrying an oxyacetylene cylinder caught fire.

The Ford Transit broke down on the A12 near Colchester, Essex, at about 8.30am. Firefighters set up a 200m exclusion zone around the vehicle and said they could not move the cylinder until it had cooled for 24 hours for fear of it blowing up.

Fire chiefs contemplated using police marksmen to shoot the cylinder and trigger a controlled explosion, but rejected the idea.

Part of a nearby rail line, which runs between Norwich and London Liverpool Street, was also closed and trains replaced by a bus service.

Last night one MP called for an investigation into the incident which paralysed road and rail links between East Anglia and London.

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Jonathan Denby, spokesman for rail firm One, said Network Rail reopened the line in both directions at 6.15pm and that services were getting back to normal. There had been a bus replacement service, but because of the problems on the A12, the buses were taking up to three hours between Witham and Colchester. An extra Norwich to London train service via Cambridge was also put on.

"We put all contingencies in place we could, including extra staff at stations," he said. "But as there was a safety exclusion zone, we had to wait for the OK to run again."

Road and rail links were closed for 10 hours yesterday, causing misery for thousands of travellers in the region.

Last night, the cylinder was being left to cool and an assessment was to be made at 7am today before emergency services are able to move the van and reopen the London-bound carriageway of the A12. The north-bound carriageway was reopened last night.

Senior divisional officer Paul Bowers, of Essex Fire Service, said last night: "Before we took the decision to reopen parts of the road, officers conducted a wet test on the cylinder which indicated a reduction in heat in the cylinder and the inherent risk of explosion.

"However, for safety's sake, we have decided it is appropriate to maintain cooling throughout the night."

The Ford Transit van involved in the fire was carrying a portable welding pack containing a 9kg oxyacetylene cylinder and was on routine station visits for general servicing and safety checks.

Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for North Essex, called for a full inquiry into yesterday's events.

He said: "I will be writing to the chairman of Essex County Council to set up a committee of inquiry.

"This has caused such a serious paralysis of the whole of the north of the county for what looks set to be 24 hours.

"I have two questions - one: what have we learnt from this episode and two: what contingency plans should we have in place if a similar event occurs?"

He said questions about the safety of carrying such cylinders would be part of an inquiry.

"It is not about finding blame, but learning from what happened and passing on the knowledge to other counties," he said."

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