20 years of the Channel Tunnel

Le Chunnel

Le Chunnel - Credit: Archant

A look at what’s changed for this world-famous underground tunnel that spans the depths of the English Channel

Eurostar pulls away from London and flashes through the Kent landscape. It’s hard to believe it’s as many as 20 years this month since the Channel Tunnel first opened for business, with shuttle services kicking the venture off and passenger trains setting in motion later in the year.

Sat with an excited daughter enjoying a trip to Paris, I suddenly start to understand why it doesn’t seem like the 20th anniversary of this landmark feat of engineering; it still feels like a futuristic concept.

That there is a tunnel under the English Channel, that trains can whizz through in 15 minutes, that you can get phone reception throughout your subterranean venture, that it’s faster to reach Paris from London than it is to struggle up to Leeds.

It still feels a little bit like Maggie Philbin is filling us with transport fantasies on Tomorrow’s World. But it’s here. It’s now.

And there are more than nine million tickets sold every year for the 18-carriage service between two countries, now connected so swiftly when compared to the lengthy ferry crossing and the time spent at airports collecting baggage.

The idea of having a tunnel linking England and France is far from a modern one, however.

Most Read

This year we may be marking the 20th anniversary of an amazing engineering achievement but the concept actually goes back over two centuries.

It was French engineer Albert Mathieu who is credited with having first suggested it and his proposal involved a tunnel lit by oil lamps and a mid-way point where horses could be changed and rested.

The first geological surveys to assess whether the tunnel would be feasible took place in the 1830s and in 1865 the idea was presented to Gladstone, then the Chancellor, although no action was taken.

The idea gained momentum, however, and discussions took place between the English and French, actually resulting in the start of drilling. In England, a seven foot boring machine channelled a pilot tunnel some 1,893 metres long – only for the project to be abandoned in 1882 because of worries about how it might compromise English defence.

During uncertain times, there was concern about the tunnel being a kind of Trojan horse and making it easy for armies to take advantage of.

Next to take up the mantle was Prime Minister David Lloyd George, although his post-Great War initiatives never got off – or beneath – the ground.

Work finally started in 1974, although a year later the British government pulled out of the project and it was not until 1981 that Francois Mitterand and Margaret Thatcher got the tunnel back on track.

Tunnel-boring machines revved up in 1988 and the two drilling operations met under the sea in December 1990, paving the way for the grand opening in 1994.

The Queen and Francois Mitterand oversaw an opening ceremony in Calais and later travelled through the tunnel to a similar event in Folkestone.

After centuries of planning, the system was soon up and running.

As well as opening up many doors for businesses, there is also a greater opportunity for the people of the south east to engage in leisure and tourism.

Three hours after seeing Canary Wharf disappear into the distance, we had checked into a hotel near Gare du Nord and were on our way to the Eiffel Tower.

Short breaks can give a taste of the Parisian nightlife and the stunning galleries. It’s not inconceivable to head to the French capital for a day trip, with lunch in Montmartre and an afternoon around Notre Dame before heading back for a night in your own bed.

The cosmopolitan feel on board Eurostar is the lifeblood of Europe pumping through our underground artery, and you can see it all around you.

The bilingual editorial assistant sat opposite, taking calls every five minutes in different tongues. The young, budding theatrical designers sat behind, telling tales of experiences working for directors on stage in London, Paris and New York. The young boy building a 3D model of the Eiffel Tower, excited about his first time abroad.

But it’s not all been bière and beef bourguignon. The Channel Tunnel project has had its fair share of critics and plenty of problems over the last two decades. At a cost of more than £4.65bn, spending was 80 per cent over budget; in today’s prices that would cost in the region of £12bn.

When the passenger service started, there was criticism of the length of time the train took to get into London from the tunnel, it being another 13 years until the St Pancras High Speed 1 link would be fully operational.

More seriously, the construction of the tunnel left 10 workers dead in industrial accidents, eight of them British.

Incidents on the line have also taken their toll. In November 1996 a lorry fire caused heavy damage to a 500 metre stretch of the tunnel, limiting services for the next six months.

Another lorry fire in 2008 blazed on for 16 hours and damaged a longer section of the tunnel, causing delays to tens of thousands of people and leaving some with minor injuries.

And then there was the winter trauma experienced by 2,000 passengers in 2009 when freezing temperatures led to the breakdown of trains, with some travellers being stuck underground for 16 hours without light, air conditioning, food or water.

Immigration also hit the headlines after the tunnel was used by people trying to reach Britain and the controversial refugee centre at Sangatte was built, later closed and triggering a multi-million pound double-security fence.

Such delays and inconveniences are, thankfully, extremely unusual and the vast majority of passengers have an unhindered experience sous la Manche.

Business people criss-crossing the Channel to hold breakfast meetings over coffee and a croissant, families heading to Disneyland Paris for a weekend with Mickey Mouse and holidaymakers soaking up culture in European cities; all disappearing into a hole in the Kent landscape and emerging in a land where currency, culture and cuisine are different.

And in a couple of years, the next stage of the journey begins, when competition between companies could mean cheaper fares and more destinations. German operator DB has already gained permission to put on services in the tunnel from 2016.

If you think about it, although it’s 20 years old this year, the whole concept still seems thoroughly futuristic.

As if a tectonic plate has squashed the UK and Europe together, we are connected to the continent and Calais is a short, comfortable journey away.

Kent is at the heart of the action, something some may even raise a glass of Champagne (or Kentish fizz) to, celebrating Anglo-French achievements in this special anniversary year. n