The Channel Tunnel: A quarter of a century old, over 200 years in the making

On the Channel Tunnel’s 25th birthday, Adam Jacot de Boinod applauds an extraordinary feat of engineering that was developed for over two centuries.

Today it is exactly 25 years since the Channel Tunnel, linking England and France, was officially opened. Both The Queen and François Mitterrand, France’s then president, attended the initial cere-mony in Calais in 1994, before travelling through the Tunnel, or ‘le tunnel sous la Manche’, to mark the opening with a similar event in Folkestone.

It’s funny to think that, 8,500 years ago, people were walking between the UK and the Continent, as were dinosaurs, on land that consisted of chalk marl. More recently, we’d sailed and flown the distance, before this incredible engineering feat enabled us to cross by train as passengers – and for our cars and goods to be transported, too.

Some 85% of these drivers are British and only 6% are French. However, it does also offer us Britons the entire Continent to hook up to by road or rail, with enjoyable direct routes to Lille, Lyon, Amsterdam and Brussels and, in the summer, Marseille and Avignon. In the winter, it provides access to French ski resorts.

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There’s even an excellent Pet Travel Scheme for drivers, which is actively encouraged by posters and covers cats, dogs and ferrets, provided they’ve been vaccinated against rabies, microchipped and hold a pet passport. Taking advantage of this is often a far better option than the cost of kennels and the distress of leaving a pet with someone else.

The idea of a Channel Tunnel has been talked about since Napoleon, who was all for it, but the British feared the threat of being invaded and subsequent attempts were stopped by political pressure over the compromising of national security. Since then, there have been many proposed schemes. In 1802, a design for a cross-channel tunnel to be lit by oil lamps for horse-drawn carts was conceived, with an artificial island halfway across for changing horses.

In 1834, the first rail proposal suggested the use of steam trains. Workmen even dug half a mile underneath Kent in the 1880s and the old tunnel is still there today. One of the most ingenious ideas involved an ice tunnel that could be melted, in an act of defence, by switching off the refrigeration units.

Abandoned Channel Tunnels

The junction of the conveyor tunnel (left) and the service tunnel built during the 1974 Channel Tunnel project at Shakespeare Cliff, near Dover, Kent, 1980.

It’s feasible, however, that a Channel Tunnel could have shortened the First World War by half as the British could have supplied troops to the Front more effectively.

A few years ago, the tunnel was voted one of the seven wonders of the modern world, alongside the Empire State Building, the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge. It really is a testament to what can happen when two nations work together.

Some 13,000 engineers, technicians and workers created an original shaft large enough to contain the Arc de Triomphe and deployed 11 boring machines, two of which remain down there because it was cheaper to bury them in the wall than to bring them out. The spoil was used creatively to build Samphire Hoe, a nature reserve off the A20.

This fastest and most weatherproof way of shifting our goods is how we get our 26 million red roses on Valentine’s Day. Indeed, a quarter of everything that’s traded between the UK and Continental Europe goes through this tunnel.

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For those who have strolled along it, it’s spooky. At almost 31½ miles, it’s the longest undersea tunnel in the world and was dug so deeply below sea level that none of it actually goes through water. There are, in fact, three tunnels. Two are for trains and a smaller service tunnel down the middle can be used both to get people out during an emergency and for maintenance work.

On December 1, 1990, the tunnellers from both nations, racing towards the breakthrough point, finally met after using lasers to guide them, although engineers weren’t completely sure they’d meet in the middle until someone with a pneumatic drill knocked through the wall and didn’t get wet.

In the event, the tunnellers were only a couple of millimetres out, but they didn’t exactly meet in the middle because the British got a little bit further than the French, who had encountered tougher rock.

Battles with contractors and banks had to be fought to get the tunnel built and the cost finally amounted to £9 billion – well over budget. Buckling under the sheer weight of debt, the owners were stumbling towards bankruptcy until an 11th-hour restructuring in 2007–08.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 2012 that the project actually became profitable and Getlink, the French owner, says it’s now going from strength to strength. Let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards – or downwards, perhaps.