WORLD

Tunnel vision

The completion of an underwater link with Europe prompts characteristic English gloom

BRUCE WALLACE May 9 1994
WORLD

Tunnel vision

The completion of an underwater link with Europe prompts characteristic English gloom

BRUCE WALLACE May 9 1994

Tunnel vision

WORLD

EUROPE

The completion of an underwater link with Europe prompts characteristic English gloom

BRUCE WALLACE

The banquet’s trappings were, quite properly, English. Beneath tattered, gunpowder-burnt Union Jacks and imposing portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Winston Churchill, 150 guests wearing black tie and evening dress gathered last week in Dover’s 13th-century Town Hall to mark the centenary of the Royal Society of St. George, a group dedicated to fostering a love of England. The menu was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; no truffles or pâté in sight, though a concession was made for New Zealand wine. There would be, mercifully, “no damn bagpipes tonight,” as one white-haired gentleman whispered to his wife while a fanfare from the Dover Sea Cadets trumpeted them to their seats. It was to be an evening of England for the English, a rare chance to set reserve aside and toast the days when life was victorious, happy and glorious.

But the moment finally came, after the beef had been drummed in and the string ensemble’s last notes of Rule Britannia had faded, when the hard realities of the present intruded. Rising to toast the guests, the current Earl Nelson of Trafalgar said that he “had been warned not to mention the Channel Tunnel,” in his remarks because “it was not very popular in this area.” There was mut-

tered assent. The English have responded with characteristic gloom to the imminent opening of the Chunnel, as the 23-mile underwater link with France is known in Britain. And nowhere is it less loved than in communities around Dover on the southeast coast of England, from which boats now ferry passengers across the English Channel to the continent. By and large, people in the area that calls itself the Garden of England abhor the sprawling terminal building that scars the town of Folkestone, do not want the new roads and high-speed railway lines that will cut through the countryside to link the Chunnel with London, and shudder at the prospect of bringing the European continent closer to their island, even if only psychologically.

On one hand, there should be much to celebrate. The $21-billion Channel Tunnel is an engineering marvel: three rail lines (two for traffic, one for service) are bored more than 40 metres below the sea through a waterproof bed of chalk, on which trains will whisk passenger cars and trucks along at speeds up to 130 kph. The Chunnel will turn the current two-hour ferry ordeal into a 30-minute crossing, and optimistic estimates suggest that by 1996 it will be carrying 14 million passengers a year, or 40 per cent of the cross-Channel traffic. It was the largest European construc-

tion project of the century, employing 15,000 workers—nine of whom died while building it. Using 1,000-tonne laser-guided drills, the project’s engineers succeeded in linking the continent with Britain for the first time since a land bridge disappeared 10,000 years ago.

Dreamers have envisaged a fixed link between Britain and France for more than two centuries, with most of the grand scheming originating on the French side of the Channel. In the 19th century, French engineers proposed plans that varied from building a bridge across the turbulent water to twin undersea tunnels for stage coach traffic, with air chimneys and oil lamps along the route. In 1881, digging actually started on a tunnel. But the British government halted the project on sober second thought, suddenly alarmed that it might become a path for invading armies.

In all there have been 27 attempts to design a tunnel, but not until 1984 did a consortium of 10 British and French construction companies and their bankers receive government approval to proceed. To Britain’s then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher the Chunnel was a chance to prove a point: mammoth engineering dreams could best be achieved through private enterprise.

Owned and operated by an Anglo-French firm called Eurotunnel PLC, the Chunnel has instead proved that, when it comes to megaprojects, the private sector, too, can come in late and wildly over budget. On May 6, Queen Elizabeth will board a train in Folkestone, re-emerge in Calais a half-hour later, clink champagne glasses with French President François Mitterrand and proclaim the Channel Tunnel open. In fact, it will not

be open at all. Although the first freight traffic is expected to begin moving through the Chunnel later this month, limited passenger services will not begin until late this summer. It is one more expensive delay for Eurotunnel, an already heavily indebted company that will run out of money in June. Over the next two months, Eurotunnel will go back to the banks and stock market to raise the last $3 billion. When it does, the Chunnel’s price tag will be more than double the first projections of $9.1 billion made in 1987.

The Chunnel may have been a private-sector baby, but the British and French governments hounded its builders from the start. Most of the cost overruns have been blamed on the exhaustive environmental and safety regulations that government bureaucrats imposed on the project. “What we underestimated,”

Eurotunnel’s co-chairman André Bénard said during an interview in Paris, “is that when you have two regulators and therefore lots of ‘experts’ with no financial stake in the project, you run a serious risk that they will overstep themselves.”

One company that became entangled in regulatory tape was Bombardier Inc. of Montreal. Bombardier won a $700-million contract to build 254 stainless-steel rail wagons on which cars and trucks will park and ride through the Chunnel. But myriad design changes caused delays and cost overruns in building the sophisticated shuttle wagons. Each car requires about 63 km of wiring in order to operate, among other things, three warning systems for detecting gas fumes and two fire-extinguishing systems. The changes prompted Bombardier to sue Eurotunnel for $746 million last year, and the Canadian company threatened to withhold delivery of the cars until payment was made. “No shuttle train, no tunnel,” warned a Bombardier spokesman.

The dispute was resolved last December in what has become Eurotunnel’s fashion: out of court and with concessions by all sides. Bombardier received $157 million and 25 million Eurotunnel shares, or between three and four per cent of the company, making the Canadian firm one of the Chunnel’s largest shareholders. Eurotunnel also dropped lawsuits against the British and French governments when they agreed to extend its concession on the Chunnel by 10 years until 2052. Eurotunnel executives were, and remain, furious with the British government for its tortoise-like pace in building a high-speed rail link from the Folkestone terminal to London. Plans for the line were finally announced in January, after an anguished public debate over the route the tracks would follow through one of the most crowded parts of England.

The projected completion date: 2002.

No such hesitancy afflicts the French. Their high-speed rail line is ready for traffic through the comparatively barren countryside between Calais and Paris. The French have snapped up Eurotunnel shares in far greater numbers than the English—and they do not understand the English reluctance to embrace what, to them, is the future. “In France, it is still instinctive to believe in the grands projets," said Bénard. “These projects can never be judged entirely on a rational basis. The French pride themselves on being Cartesian people, but I don’t think we are. In France, we are

governed by our guts rather than our brains.”

Across the choppy Channel waters, the English choose to look on the dark side. What about terrorist attacks, they ask? What about the disappearing countryside? Won’t animals sneak through the tunnel, bringing rabies to an island that has long been free of it? Polls have shown that the British, especially women, are reluctant to use the Chunnel. The lack of enthusiasm extends to Folkestone itself, a town of 44,000 people where many merchants have refused to put up posters advertising a festival to celebrate the Chunnel opening, and where 100 residents, whose homes had lost value because of their proximity to the terminal, crowded into a church hall last week to discuss a class-action suit against Eurotunnel.

Of course, complaining about Europe’s growing influence is almost a form of English correctness. “We do live well and truly in the past,” said a smiling Norman Newlands, enjoying the pageantiy of the St. George’s banquet. In reality, Europe creeps closer all the time: its foods, furniture and fashions are already integral parts of daily life in Britain. When pressed, Newlands acknowledges that he and his wife, Shirley, regularly skip across the Channel to shop for such items as French champagne. They are also, as it turns out, both shareholders in Eurotunnel. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” said Shirley with a shrug. On the wall behind her, Churchill was frowning.

BRUCE WALLACE in Dover