Channel Tunnel

The idea of a ‘fixed link’ between England and France was first seriously put forward in the nineteenth century and trial lengths of tunnel (of about a mile each) were bored on both sides of the Channel in 1882. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Channel Tunnel was being proposed as a vital link in a land route from London via Paris, Milan, Belgrade, Constantinople and Aleppo, to Baghdad (and thence to India). However, there was opposition to a tunnel as a potential threat to national security, and – in spite of French support – this resistance was still strong enough to lead the House of Commons to reject a tunnel scheme by 179 votes to 172 in June 1930. Six years later, Winston Churchill declared: ‘There are few projects against which there exists a deeper and more enduring prejudice than the construction of a railway tunnel between Dover and Calais’.

The steady post-war growth in cross-Channel passen­ger and freight traffic led to a revival of discussion about a fixed link. Although a rail tunnel scheme was approved in principle by the British and French governments in 1966, it was abandoned nine years later, as too expensive, without any serious construction work having been undertaken. In 1979, the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher indicated that it had no objection to the development of a fixed link provided that it was financed privately, in return for an exclusive franchise granted by the state. An official Franco-British working party was established in 1981 to investigate options and receive bids. The proposals considered included not only a continuous rail tunnel, but a combined rail and road scheme requiring both bridges and tunnels. The proposal submitted by the TransManche Link consortium, subsequently known as Eurotunnel, was finally accepted. It resuscitated the rail-only scheme abandoned in 1975, providing for two tunnels, 7.6 metres in diameter and 30 metres apart, with a third, 4.8-metre wide, service tunnel in between. The Anglo-French Channel Tunnel Treaty was signed in Canterbury on 12 February 1986 and ratified the following year. Work started in December 1987 and lasted three and a half years. The break-through between the two sides took place on 1 December 1990 and, six months later, a total of 150 kilometres of tunnelling (for the three parallel tunnels) had been completed. The Channel Tunnel was offi­cially opened by the Queen and the French President, François Mitterrand, in May 1994, with passenger services beginning six months later.

The Channel Tunnel extends for 50.5 kilometres between Folkestone and Calais, of which approximately 37.9 kilometres are under the seabed. It is used both by high-speed passenger trains – a dedicated company, Eurostar, runs scheduled services between London and both Paris and Brussels – and by normal freight trains. In addition, special, drive-on/drive-off wagons transport cars, lorries and coaches (and their passengers) in a continuous shuttle between terminals in Folkestone and Calais. The number of passengers using the Eurostar has risen from 2.9 million in 1995 to 9.7 million in 2011. The comparable figures for use of the shuttle are 4.4 million in 1995 and 7.8 million in 2011.

Built at a cost of over € 10 billion by a consortium of 15 French and British banks and civil engineering firms, the construction of the Channel Tunnel overran its original budget by some 80 per cent. To relieve the burden of indebtedness on Eurotunnel, the company has been restructured twice, in 1988 and 2007. The British and French governments have also agreed to extend its franchise on the fixed link from 2042 to 2086. The Channel Tunnel is the world’s longest underwater tunnel and the second longest railway tunnel (after the 53.8-kilometre Seikan tunnel between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan, bored through solid rock at a depth twice as great). In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers voted the Channel Tunnel one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Modern World’.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry




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