In 1953 a project which would reveal the last secrets of Mont Blanc began - the Tunnel du Mont Blanc through to Italy - which was finally completed in 1965. With the construction of the Autoroute Blanche completed just before this, Chamonix was now firmly established on the European road network. The last great expanse of the valley that remained to be conquered was Les Grands Montets (3300m). Work started on the area in 1961 and it was opened in 1963 creating a ski area with more than 2200m descent.
The Mont Blanc Tunnel
Key dates in the history of the Mont Blanc Tunnel:
||Construction of the tunnel began on the Italian side, boring a tunnel through the rock, and marking the beginning of the project
||the French and Italian ministers officially launched the boring work from both entrances of the tunnel
||French and Italian workers meet in the middle, with only a 13cm variation!
||Mont Blanc Tunnel officially opened by Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Giuseppe Saragat
||Mont Blanc Tunnel fire kills 39 victims and closes tunnel for 3 years
||Mont Blanc Tunnel re-opens after significant reconstruction safety improvements
On 24 March 1999, a heavy goods vehicle carrying flour and margarine came to a stop 6.7 kilometres into the tunnel after entering from the French side. A fire broke out and quickly spread to nearby vehicles; such was the intensity of the heat, French emergency teams were prevented from making their way through the tunnel. Thick black smoke was produced by the burning vehicles in just a matter of minutes.
It took two days for the emergency services to bring the fire under control, which claimed 39 lives.
A legal inquiry was opened by the Public Prosecutor for Bonneville, Haute Savoie, following the fire. As a result of the inquiry, 14 individuals and companies, including the ATMB and SGTMB appeared before the Bonneville Magistrates’ Court on charges of manslaughter. The verdict and trial was finally concluded in July 2005, where it was found that serious misgivings had taken place and it was "a catastrophe that could have been avoided". You can find further information about the trial verdict in our news.
After the fire, the tunnel had to be completely refurbished at a cost of €380 million before it could re-open on the 09 March 2002, nearly three years after it closed. Initially it was only light vehicles that were permitted to use the tunnel, with heavy goods traffic gradually being phased in over a 3 month period. For 12 months after the re-opening, heavy goods vehicles were only allowed to travel through the tunnel one direction at a time, but today, the traffic flows freely in both directions 24 hours a day.
Now all HGVs undergo rigorous checks by security personnel before being granted entry to the tunnel. Each vehicle is first checked for its clearance height and Euro category (an environmental standard based on vehicle age and pollution level) before passing through two heat detection portals – one at the bottom of the valley in Le Fayet and the second right at the tunnel entrance. These will spot any overheating potential before the vehicle enters the tunnel.