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I haven’t mentioned the engine room fire on the Carnival Triumph up until now – it happened a long way away, and Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) aren’t a company that I’m likely to cruise with anytime soon. But it seems likely that the incident will have repercussions so here goes.

Just to recap the broad details: there was a small engine-room fire on the Carnival Triumph last Sunday, I think (10 February). No one was injured in the fire, but it did mean that all electrical power generated by the main engines was lost. In systems terms, you have to think of a cruise ship as a floating power station; rotational output from the diesel engines goes straight into electricity generators, and the resulting electricity powers everything on the ship. This not only includes propulsion but also lighting, air-condition/heating, cooking, sanitation systems – it’s all electrically powered, so when the generators aren’t working you’re in trouble. There are emergency generators on the ship, in locations away from the engine room, but these can only provide small amounts of power for absolutely essential functions, and bridge command/control/communications systems are regarded as more important than any of the other things mentioned above. So following the fire the Carnival Triumph was drifting without power. She had to be towed back to port (Mobile, Alabama was the chosen destination) and it has taken four days or more to make the trip. During those four days conditions on board have steadily been getting worse, with effectively no sanitation and limited capability to produce hot food. The refrigeration plants must also have stopped working, so I imagine that food in the cold fold stores must also have started to spoil. All in all, a horrible experience for everyone concerned.

Now that the ship has docked the first pictures and videos of the mess the ship is in are being broadcast, and we can expect a lot more of these. They show the state of the cabins, the way bedding and make-shift tents was moved up to the open decks because it was too hot to sleep in the cabins, and so on. Here’s a link to an early BBC News story and video. There are also stories about the improvised sanitary arrangements that had to be adopted, and they don’t make pleasant reading. As the clip says, this is a public relations disaster.

Some people will link it to the Cost Concordia sinking, but I don’t – that was the result of the actions of the captain (or so it seems) and not the result of problems with the design of the ship. I do however link it with a similar event on the Carnival Splendor, which also suffered an engine room fire (in November 2010) which knocked out the power. As with the current incident, the ship drifted, and provision of air-con, heating, water, sanitation, etc, were all heavily reduced. As with the current incident only emergency power was available, though in the older case some main power was eventually restored and conditions on board weren’t as bad as with the current case – sanitation was restored to parts of the ship in the older incident, for example..

In that older case the investigation report hasn’t yet been published so we don’t know the full details of what happened. But I’ve read that that ship had two engine rooms, and the fire only affected one of them. The design theoretically provides redundancy in the provision of the power supplies, but initially at least it seems that the fire in one engine room knocked out 100% of the normal power supplies. That shouldn’t happen. I don’t yet know the details of the engine room  layout and power supply provision on the Carnival Triumph, but again I would have expected that redundancy would have been a basic tenet of the design; and if so, then one more that redundancy seems to have failed.

I have a feeling that passengers and their representatives will start asking some hard questions about this sort of thing. I don’t think many passengers had realised, up until now, just how reliant on electrical power cruise ships have become, nor how fragile that supply has proved to be in these two recent incidents. This is likely to result in a reduction in passengers, and significant expense on the part of the cruise lines in improving the resilience of provision of basic services around the ships. This one might have a big impact.

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