Vive le Channel Tunnel

THE OPENING OF A TUNNEL LINKING Britain and France in 1994 was the culmination of more than 180 years of debates, discussions, and delays. The first proposal for a tunnel under the English Channel (although not a rail one) had been made as far back as 1802, by one of Napoleon’s engineers. At that time, the journey from London to Paris took about four days (or several weeks if the Channel winds were unfavorable) but the British military, politicians, and even the press were not sold on the idea of a tunnel, fearing that it would leave the island nation vulnerable to attack. Over the next half century, various plans were proposed, on both sides of the Channel, but they came to nothing. The first serious attempt at digging a rail tunnel was promoted by a Victorian entrepreneur, Sir Edward Watkin, in 1881. Exploratory tunnels were dug at Dover in England and Sangatte in France, but work was abandoned in 1882, largely due to political pressure from the still-unconvinced British.


By the early 20th century, more advanced tunneling machines and the development of electric traction had made the idea of a rail tunnel a more realistic proposition. However, by this time a fit of xenophobic hysteria had seized most of the British military establishment, which was adamant that foreign powers would use the tunnel as a corridor for invasion. In fact, Marshal Foch, the Allies’ Supreme Commander in the last year of World War I, declared that a tunnel could have shortened the conflict by two years. Nevertheless, these delays in building a tunnel simply meant that the competition kept on speeding up. By 1852, the journey time between London and Paris had been reduced to 12 hours by sea and rail, and 60 years later it took a mere 7 hours. In the 1930s, the glamorous Flèche d’Or (Golden Arrow) train-ferry service reduced the journey time to just over six and half hours and by that time there was also a regular air service between Croydon, just outside London, and Le Bourget, northeast of Paris.

Although military hysteria dissipated after the end of World War II in 1945, progress on a tunnel remained slow, particularly at the British end. In 1963, the British government finally endorsed the building of a tunnel. By this time, the commercial outlook was promising as the number of travelers from London to Paris was increasing steadily (1 million per year in 1960 and 2.5 million by 1978). However, the British were still rather lukewarm about the project and had not yet agreed to a new rail line to link the tunnel to London and beyond. British Rail suggested a variety of routes but each one was more expensive than its predecessor. In the end, the cost of the new rail link provided an excellent excuse for the government to cancel the project in early 1975, just as tunneling was about to begin. This about-turn, which was in fact necessitated by Britain’s perilous financial situation, naturally infuriated the French and reinforced their suspicions that Britain was not really serious about a Channel tunnel.

However, the idea for a tunnel refused to go away, and within four years Sir Peter Parker, the chairman of British Rail, together with his counterparts from the SNCF in France, had resurrected the project by proposing a single-track tunnel—inevitably called the “mousehole”—running “flights” of trains back and forth across the Channel. This somewhat ramshackle idea did not progress, but the principle of building a Channel tunnel received a boost from an unlikely source—eurosceptic British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” decided that a tunnel could proceed under the Channel, as long as it was privately, not publicly, funded. Along with French President FranÇois Mitterand, Thatcher set up a working group and then invited bidders to submit their proposals. Thatcher disliked railroads, so her natural preference was for a road-based, or at least a “drive-through” concept—a bias she shared with Mitterrand—but in the end an idea involving dual rail tunnels won out. By the end of 1985, the Channel Tunnel Group/TransManche Link, a consortium of five French and five British contractors plus five banks, had been awarded the contract to build the tunnel.

The whole operation was still fiendishly complicated. It took two more years for the Channel Tunnel Act, which officially rubber-stamped the program, to pass through the British Parliament (although the French procedure took mere days) and the world’s investment community was by no means enthusiastic about the tunnel’s financial prospects. Financial negotiations were hampered by the geographical spread of the various banks involved and the sheer number of contractors involved in the program made the construction process equally complex. However, the balance of power between the interested parties was transformed in early 1987 with the appointment of Alastair Morton as full-time British joint chairman of Eurotunnel, the company that actually held the contract to build the tunnel. During Morton’s nine years at Eurotunnel he saved what was a fundamentally uneconomic venture from disaster by dealing with the British government, the contractors, and the 200 banks eventually involved. He also grappled with British Rail and SNCF, who would be the main users (to add further complexity, British Rail was being prepared for privatization at the time). After protracted negotiations about the technology the tunnel would use and the type of links the tunnel would provide, a complicated international consortium was formed combining railroad companies from France, Britain, and Belgium.

Tunneling commenced at long last in December 1987, when the British started digging a service tunnel that would be used for maintenance and emergencies. Starting with the service tunnel was a good way of testing the tunneling conditions, foreshadowing any geological or practical issues before work on the main rail tunnels began. The French commenced their end of the service tunnel a couple of months after the British and then, in June 1988, two rail tunnels were started simultaneously from both sides. Thus the Channel Tunnel was, and remains, in fact three tunnels—two rail tunnels separated by a service tunnel. It was the biggest engineering project ever undertaken by France or Britain, requiring 15,000 workers at its peak. However, progress was slower than predicted, causing costs to spiral. In fact, there were no fewer than three major financial crises while the tunnel was under construction and the cost of the project exceeded its budget by more than 80 percent. Nevertheless, on December 4, 1990, the two tunneling teams finally shook hands mid-Channel. Amazingly, the tunnels were only 13in (330mm) out of alignment, despite each traveling 9 miles (15km) from opposite ends.


Completing the tunnels was just the beginning of the process, however. As one observer put it: “turning the tunnels into a piece of complex, safe, and sophisticated transportation infrastructure was to prove an altogether different challenge,” involving as it did power supply, lighting, ventilation, communication, maintenance provision, and fire detection and suppression equipment. The trains themselves were also incredibly complex, as they had to cope with different power supplies and signaling systems not just in Britain and France, but also in Belgium, where some trains would terminate. Safety fears also meant that every piece of equipment had to receive a separate operating certificate for each country, at an estimated cost of over $645 million, with a further $322 million lost in the resulting delays. However, the stringent safety requirements have proved their worth: there have been only three serious fires in the Channel Tunnel—all started on shuttles carrying trucks—that closed the Tunnel for short periods, but caused no loss of life.


In the end the tunnel was delayed by a year, far less than many much smaller projects. The contractors handed over the project to Eurotunnel in December 1993, and the “Chunnel”—as it was nicknamed—was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterand in May 1994. Freight trains began traveling through the Tunnel a month later and rail passengers were welcomed in November, on the service now known as Eurostar. On December 22, 1994, the Channel Tunnel achieved a world first with the inaugural car shuttle service, known as Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, from Folkestone to Calais.

However, in one major respect the project was incomplete when the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994. Providing a fast line to the tunnel was relatively easy for the French, since all it took was building a branch line to Calais from their new fast line from Paris to Lille and Brussels. By contrast, neither British Rail nor the British government could overcome the difficulties inherent in building an entirely new line from London to Folkestone. British Rail had never designed a new railroad line, and all the routes it suggested threatened the rich heartland of Kent, as well as numerous marginal constituencies in South East London. As a result, the Eurostar trains on the British side of the tunnel had to travel along tortuous, winding tracks that had been laid a century earlier. The rails were strengthened and the route was provided with new signals and upgraded power supplies, but still, the trains were noticeably much slower in England than in France.


It took until 1996 before work began on a high-speed line for the British part of the route—a line now called High Speed 1 (HS1). Even when work finally began, it was far from straightforward. The project was beset with financial and construction problems. Excavation of the route revealed many ancient relics, which thrilled archaeologists, but caused further delays. Eventually, the first section of the high-speed route through Kent opened in 2003, reducing the journey time between London and Paris by 20 minutes.

The second section of the route, from the North Downs in Kent to a new terminal at St. Pancras station in London, was an even bigger engineering problem. It involved tunneling under the Thames River, navigating marshes in east London, building an enormous new station at Stratford, and rebuilding St. Pancras station. The biggest headache, however, was constructing an 11-mile (18-km) tunnel to St. Pancras that would avoid the existing sewers, main railway lines, and underground system. Finally, on November 13, 2007, the link was finished, and Eurostar transferred its passenger services from Waterloo to St. Pancras. The switch of terminals marked an historic moment, linking Britain’s first high-speed line to its equivalent in Europe and finally completing the Channel Tunnel project more than 200 years after it had first been proposed. It is the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel—23½ miles (37.9km) of the 31⅜-mile (50.4-km) tunnel runs under the Channel—and has been described by the American Society of Civil Engineers as “One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

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