The British workers digging the Channel Tunnel joked that the opening was just big enough for a “whiff of garlic” to waft through from France. Instead, a steel probe driven from the British side made a major impression on Frenchmen. The source of the excitement was a small hole in the chalky soil dividing the two teams tunnelling towards each other 150 feet under the English Channel. At 7:30 p.m. British time (it was an hour later in France) on Tuesday, Oct. 30, French workers cleared away the last few inches of soil on their side and located the tiny opening from the British side. The breakthrough linked Britain to mainland Europe for the first time since an ancient land bridge eroded away 10,000 years ago. French radio proclaimed that “Britain is no longer an island.” Many Britons took a characteristically different view. “The Europeans are no longer cut off from merry England,” proclaimed the mass-circulation Sun newspaper. “Welcome back to civilization.”
Last week’s linkup was only the first of several steps in joining the French and English sections of the Channel Tunnel, nicknamed “the Chunnel,” the biggest construction project in Europe and a potent symbol of the
Continent’s economic integration. During the first week of December, engineers say, they expect to widen the borehole into a passage large enough for workers to walk through. French and British builders will shake hands under the sea, and the service tunnel, the first of the three parallel tunnels comprising the project, will be nearly complete. The other two larger tunnels that will eventually carry trains on their 31-mile journey between England and France will not be finished until next September, and the first passengers are not scheduled to make the journey until June 15, 1993. But the tunnel’s builders celebrated last week. Said John Noulton, administration director of Transmanche-Link, the consortium of 10 British and French companies constructing the tunnel: “There is a definite sense of history being made.”
The builders’ satisfaction was heightened by the accuracy of the linkup. After tunnelling towards each other since December, 1987, the two teams achieved an almost perfect contact. Tests showed that the British and French drilling machines were only four inches off target, putting an end to recurring editorial cartoons about what might happen if the tunnelling teams passed by each other. “We
scored a bull’s-eye,” Noulton said in an interview. “It’s like going round the moon and back again and landing where you took off.”
The successful linkup provided a badly needed boost for a project that has suffered from financial problems and, on the British side, from widespread public criticism. The cost of the tunnel now is estimated at $17 billion, up from a 1987 forecast of just $10 billion. Eurotunnel PLC, the company that is financing the project and that will run it, last year engaged in a public dispute with Transmanche-Link, which is carrying out the construction, over escalating costs and delays in building. And in Kent, the mainly rural English county where the British terminus of the tunnel is located, many people strongly oppose it.
Some of the hostility stems from concern over noise and environmental damage from a planned high-speed rail link between London and the tunnel entrance at Shakespeare Cliff, near the seaside town of Folkestone. But many Britons, with the inbred suspicion of residents of an island nation, remain uncomfortable with being physically linked to what they call simply “Europe.” Roger Vickerman, director of the Channel Tunnel Research Unit at the University of Kent at Canterbury, calls it “the garlic-fog syndrome.” Said Vickerman: “People somehow have this fear of being linked to the Continent based on something unpleasant coming out of the tunnel. It’s not rational—but then, people don’t want to look at it rationally.” As a result, France has been quicker to take advantage of the potential economic benefits of the tunnel. The French government is financing a high-speed rail link from Paris to the tunnel’s French terminal near Calais, part of an ambitious program of building rapid-rail lines throughout the country and to the rest of Europe. The British government, meanwhile, refuses to put any money into the planned $8.9billion London-Folkestone high-speed lineAnd
while the people of Kent protested vigorously against the project, towns in northern France complained only when they were left off the proposed route of the new rail line. The French have also been the most enthusiastic investors in the tunnel—fully 436,000 of the project’s 560,000 private shareholders live in France.
The project itself is the culmination of almost two centuries of planning and dreaming by engineers— with the French usually supportive and the British skeptical. The first proposal emerged in 1802, when a French mining engineer named Albert Mathieu drew up plans for a tunnel to carry horse-drawn carriages. New hostilities between Britain and Napoleonic France quickly scuttled Mathieu’s hopes. In 1851, a British engineer proposed dropping a giant iron tube into the sea to create a tunnel. In 1881, digging actually began from both sides, but was abandoned two years later due to British concerns that subversives might infiltrate England through the passage. In 1974, tunnelling began again, but stopped the next year because of spiralling costs and environmental concerns. The latest venture was launched in 1986, when the French and Brit-
ish governments chose the current design for an underwater rail link from among several competing proposals. When it opens in mid1993, the Channel Tunnel will consist of three parallel passages joined by a series of cross-
tunnels. A service tunnel 15 ¥2 feet in diameter will run down the centre, to be used for maintenance purposes and as an evacuation route in an emergency. On either side of that passage, the one which will be completed next month, are two larger, so-called running tunnels 25 feet in diameter. They will carry passenger and freight trains at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h., as well as shuttle trains, which will ferry cars and trucks between England and France. People will drive their vehicles onto the shuttles for the 30-minute undersea journey and drive them off at the other end.
Elaborate precautions will be taken to counter one widespread British concern—that rabies, now unknown in the country, might be introduced by stray animals passing through the tunnel from France. Screens and electrified grids will be placed inside the tunnels to keep animals, and the disease, out. Other concerns are shared by people on both sides of the Channel. Some critics argue that the tunnel will make it easier for smugglers to move drugs or other illegal goods between Britain and France, while others contend that the tunnel could be a tempting and easy target for terrorists because it will be im-
possible to check every vehicle thoroughly for concealed bombs. But officials say that their security screening will be tight enough to discourage any smugglers and terrorists, and Eurotunnel spokesmen say that the tunnel itself will be strong enough to withstand even the most powerful explosion. Another potent fear is that the tunnel might become a giant deathtrap in case of fire. Each shuttle train will carry dozens of cars and trucks; some may also carry campers equipped with pressurized gas cylinders. Concerns about fire heightened last year when the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority approved Eurotunnel’s proposal that passengers remain in their vehicles, where they will be allowed to smoke during the undersea journey, rather than travelling in separate compartments. Eurotunnel officials maintain that such fears are exagger-
ated, and they point out that some 25 million vehicles have been carried through similar tunnels under the Alps without a fatal accident.
Despite such concerns, Eurotunnel forecasts that about 30 million people will use the
tunnel in its first year of operation. The consortium’s officials say that passengers will find it difficult to resist the speed and reliability of the undersea passage, which will cut a rail journey between London and Paris to about two hours and 45 minutes from the current seven hours by a combination of rail and ferry services. Most analysts agree. They add that, barring further cost overruns, the tunnel will most likely bring its investors a favorable return in freight charges and passenger fares, and will probably drive most cross-Channel ferries out of business. “When you build a bridge, nobody goes by ferry anymore,” said Stefan Szymanski, an expert on the economics of the tunnel at the London Business School. “And what this amounts to is essentially a very long bridge.” But profitable or not, the tunnel will almost certainly be another step in drawing the reluctant British closer to their continental neighbors.
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