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The Channel Tunnel: Planned Since 1802

An Unmatched Rivalry

Forget America and Russia, forget even America and China. One of history’s most famous rivalries lies between two countries separated by only a slither of water, just 21 miles (33.7km) at its closest points. Two countries that have engaged in battle time and time again over nearly a thousand years, and whose empires dominated vast swathes of the planet. But these old enemies have mellowed with age, and on 1st December 1990, something extraordinary happened. Two faces appeared either side of a small hole in a rough rock wall face. One man clutched, the Union Jack of the United Kingdom, the other, the French Tricolour. They both smiled and shook hands. The Channel Tunnel was born.

Tunnels can be difficult to get too excited about. We can’t see them from the outside, and even when we are in one it’s hard to register its scale and size. But they are some of the most labour-intensive projects we have ever undertaken. While you may delight in the fact that you can board a train in London, and disembark in Paris 2 hours 15 minutes later, it is the 35 minutes of near darkness underground that we really should be marvelling at.

Just a quick note, while the majority of trains run between London and Paris, there are services that connect the British capital with Lille, Brussels and Amsterdam. There are also seasonal services that run further south in France. But let’s get back to that tunnel.

In total, the channel tunnel is 31.35 miles (50.45km) long, which isn’t actually long enough to even make it into the top 10 longest tunnels in the world, but this is the longest underwater tunnel on the planet, and also the longest international tunnel.

And it isn’t just one tunnel, it’s three. There are two 7.6 metres (25ft) diameter tunnels built 30 metres (98ft) apart used by the trains, and a 4.8 metres (16ft) service tunnel running between for maintenance and emergencies. These tunnels are then connected with pairs of 3.3 metres (11ft) diameter passageways from both main tunnels to the service tunnel every 375-metres (1,230 ft). At its deepest, the tunnel is 70 metres (230ft) below the water, and to give you a wonderfully French comparison here, that’s about 107 baguettes end to end.

Now, if this wasn’t complicated enough, consider that digging was done from both ends simultaneously. Speed was the main reason for this, but I also suspect that neither of these great nations would have accepted the project going just one way. It required a symbolic act somewhere in the middle. When they finally met, they were just 50 centimetres off the planned meeting point, well within the parameters required.

A Long, Long Road

We know that the first part of this tunnel was finally connected in 1990, but incredibly by that point, the idea of a channel tunnel was nearly 190 years old.

A Frenchman by the name of Albert Mathieu-Favier was the first to outline a plan in 1802. But instead of trains like we see today, Favier envisioned that the journey would be made by horse-drawn carriage, with an artificial island midway that would allow for a change of horse. While his plans really didn’t get anywhere, this was an idea that popped up continuously from then until 1964 when both governments finally agreed to it.

Famously in 1881, perhaps frustrated by their government’s lackadaisical approach, a group of independently-minded engineers thought they would give it a go. But this was no shovel and spade outfit. Sir Edward Watkin and Alexandre Lavalley, a Frenchman who had worked on the Suez Canal, formed the Anglo-French Submarine Railway Company. Their efforts were seen as exploratory, but they certainly gave it a good go. By the time the project was scrapped in 1882, a tunnel from Shakespeare Cliffs near Dover had tunnelled 1,893-metre (6,211 ft), while on the French side at Sangatte, 1,669 m (5,476 ft) had been dug. But in the end, political pressure put paid to their efforts.

The problem was neither side quite trusted the other, and this was an issue that constantly dogged the project. Napoleon had dominated the European continent in the early decades of the 19th century, and while his progress had ended with the Emperor banished to a distant Atlantic island, the British still felt a distrust of their Gallic neighbours across the channel – and this was a suspicion more than reciprocated by the French.

As the idea was brought up again and again, it was often military leaders who raised objections over the project, seemingly certain that a tunnel would enable enormous invading armies to one day simply saunter through the tunnel. Even the compromise of a system where both sides could effectively flood the entire tunnel failed to settle suspicions.

No, it would take the most horrific war the world had ever known to finally calm their fears, and push the project forward. A bond already strengthened during World War I was cemented in the aftermath of World War II, two wars in which the British and French had fought side-by-side.

Interestingly, rumours had circulated during the war that Hitler was using slave labour to dig a tunnel under the channel. One military analyst went as far to estimate that it could theoretically be completed in just 18 months. But thankfully nothing ever came of that.

By 1964 it looked like things were finally coming together. A detailed geographic survey was undertaken, and the two governments finally agreed to greenlight the project, with preliminary work beginning in 1974.

And it lasted less than a year. In 1975 the new Labor government, operating under a severe economic crisis, pulled the plug, much to the dismay of the French. The British were already 300 metres (958ft) into an experimental dig, but this tunnel would eventually be recycled and used to form the modern tunnel. The cost of cancellation to the British government was in the region of £16 million.

Four years later it seemed like things were back on, but with the Magret Thatcher’s government refusing to fund the project through taxpayers money, it was opened up to private investment, and by 1985 a shortlist of ideas had emerged. But strangely many of them now drifted far away from the original tunnel idea.

The first was very similar to what we have today, but perhaps simplified slightly
The second came to be known as Eurobridge – Yes you’ve guessed, this would be a 22 mile (35km) suspension bridge with a roadway in an enclosed tube
Thirdly was Euroroute, which called for artificial islands to be created in the channel, which would then be connected by a series of bridges.
Lastly was the Channelexpressway, which would be a tunnel, but one that you could drive independently through, with ventilation towers mid-way.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Now, perhaps some of those seem a little far fetched, but at that time even a railway under the channel seemed like a lofty idea. Margret Thatcher was a great proponent of car usage within the tunnel, as it provided a more individual experience, but this was always seen as overly ambitious. Not simply in terms of ventilation, but also on safety grounds.

There was also fierce opposition to the project from a group who would certainly not benefit from a channel tunnel. Any guesses? The ferry industry of course. Flexilink, a lobby group formed by several ferry companies, protested against the plans, especially in the 1980s. They, of course, didn’t come out and say we don’t want it because it will ruin our business, no it was cleverly designed as an issue about British sovereignty, and “keeping Britain an island”.

But it didn’t work. In 1987, voting on the project passed in both the French and British governments. One little point to highlight here. While the French passed it unanimously, there were still hold-outs within the British government. Promises of ‘regional Eurostar’ trains to other parts of Britain certainly helped to sway votes, but they were promises that were never kept.

Digging Begins (Again)

Construction of the Channel Tunnel officially began on the French side in June 1988, with the British leisurely kicking into gear six months later in December. It must be said that the challenges faced by the French, in terms of digging at least, were greater than on the British side. Considering how close they are, you might be excused in thinking that their geology would be basically the same, but that’s not really true. Both sides were aiming to tunnel through chalk marl, a relatively kind substance if you wanted to build a 31 mile (50km) tunnel. However, the French side contained a higher concentration of microcracks, causing more water to enter, and thus making the whole substance much more difficult to tunnel through. But the French had a plan for this.

Rather than simply starting the tunnel from the terminal point in Calais, French engineers built a huge shaft close to the sea, 55 metres (180ft) in diameter and 65 (104ft) metres deep, about as tall as a 20 storey house and a space large enough to place the entire Arc de Triomphe. From here they began tunnelling in two directions, one towards their inland terminal, and the other towards the UK.

In total the digging was undertaken by 11 Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs), weighing just over 1000 tonnes each, which meant that their combined weight was more than the Eiffel Tower. The diameter of those used in the two main tunnels was 7.6 metre (25ft), and they extended to about the length of a football pitch.

If you remember from one of our previous videos on the Crossrail project in and around London, the British named their TBMs after famous British women, but this wasn’t the case during the Channel Tunnel excavation, with some rather generic alphanumeric titles given. The French, however, were a little more inventive, and the vast mechanical machines boring from the French side came to be known as Brigitte, Europa, Catherine, Virginie, Pascaline, Séverine.

Tunnelling took two years to complete and pulled out a staggering 4.9 million cubic metres (173 million cubic feet) of chalk marl and shale. While the vast majority of it was done using the TBMs, some of the more delicate sections needed to be excavated by hand using smaller pneumatic drills. Another surprising point, the tunnels are neither straight nor level. A decision was made to try and stay within the chalk marl as much as possible, as it was much easier to excavate, but this meant slight alterations here and there. Sitting on a train travelling through, it’s almost impossible to feel the slight curves, but they are there.

Sadly this feat came at a human cost, with 10 workers losing their lives during construction, mostly in the early stages.

The Big Day – Part 1

While the world knows the 1st December 1990 as the day the two sections of the service tunnel finally met, that’s not entirely accurate. In fact, some 31 days earlier, on 30th October a tiny hole was created to connect the two tunnels. At just two inches (5cm) in diameter, it didn’t carry the same kind of excitement as what was to come, but it was important nonetheless.

On 1st December 1990, the world watched in anticipation as Englishman Graham Fagg and Frenchman Phillippe Cozette finally met through the now enlarged hole. The two had been chosen randomly from the workers on the project and it added a sense of togetherness that it wasn’t politicians or executives in front of the cameras, but two men who had, quite literally, sweated to help reach this incredible feat. It was a testament to the 13,000 people who participated in the construction.

“Bonjour mon ami” the Englishman said – hello my friend.

“Welcome to France” came the French response. The two reached through to shake hands and exchanged their flags. The moment, immortalised on television, has become iconic to both Britain and France, a symbol of not only an engineering wonder, but one of friendship, and cooperation.

If you are wondering why Phillippe Cozette said welcome to France, it was because the tunnels hadn’t actually met halfway, the British side had tunnelled slightly further than the French, this has never been completely explained but probably lies with the more difficult geology on the French side.

The Big Day – Part 2

Despite the euphoria that greeted the meeting underground, the project wasn’t even remotely finished. In fact, it was over four years later on May 6th 1994 that two trains met nose to nose in Calais. One had travelled through the tunnel from London and carried Queen Elizabeth II, the other had come from Paris with French President Francois Mitterrand onboard.

A ceremony in Calais was followed by the same in Folkestone, with the Queen and the President travelling aboard a train through the tunnel from France to the United Kingdom for the first time.

Though passengers did not begin travelling for several months, the first freight train rumbled through the tunnel on 1st June 1994.

Travelling Through

There are two ways that you use this service. Foot passengers can embark at any of the destination terminals, London, Paris, Lille, Brussels and Amsterdam, but also at Ashford and Ebbsfleet in the Uk, and Calais in France, which are the closest stations either end of the tunnels. This service is known as the Eurostar. The Eurotunnel is used between Folkestone and Calais, carrying only freight and automobiles and takes just 35 minutes, depositing you easily onto the road systems of either Britain or France.

The Eurostar trains are 402 metres (1318ft) long and can carry a total of 900 passengers, roughly double what a jumbo jet can hold. With a full complement on board, the train would weigh around 980 tonnes, that’s about 77 double-decker buses in London. On the British side at least, it’s also a record-breaker. On 30 July 2003, a Eurostar reached 160mph (257.5km/h), a UK train speed record.

The Eurotunnel trains, known as Le Shuttle, are much larger at 800 metres (2624ft) in length, the size of seven football pitches, and 4.2metres (14ft) across. Passenger vehicles are carried in car shuttle trains which are accessed by driving on and off.

Euro Tunnel by Stephen Chin is licensed under CC-BY

Freight trains work on a separate service completely, which is in fact ‘semi-open’ meaning the carriages aren’t entirely enclosed. Lorries are manoeuvred onboard, and the drivers have an area known as the club car where they can wait during the trip.

Sixteen Years On

It’s fair to say it hasn’t been an easy ride for the channel tunnel. Today, on average around 60,000 people travel through the tunnel each day, with around 4,600 lorries, 140 coaches and 7,300 cars using the service. Impressive numbers, but overall since its launch the numbers have been lower than anticipated. The rise of the low budget airline proved a serious competitor to a Eurostar service, that can sometimes equate to several times the cost. However, numbers have risen steadily, in terms of foot passengers at least. In 2004, nearly 3 million people used the service, while in 2018 that number had hit 11 million.

The channel tunnel has seen a number of serious incidents since its opening. Six fires have occurred either on the trains or within the tunnels themselves, the most serious of which happened on 11th September 2008, leading to several passengers requiring medical assistance for smoke inhalation. The fire caused £60 million in damage and meant full service did not resume for another 5 months.

On 18th December 2009, during a colder than normal winter, snow on the outside of the trains melted within the tunnel, eventually causing a massive power failure. Five London bound trains ground to a halt inside, trapping 2000 passengers on board, some for as long as 16 hours. This was the first time that the service tunnel had been used for evacuation.

The tunnel has also become embroiled in a deeper controversy, surrounding illegal immigration. Almost as soon as it opened the tunnel attracted illegal immigrants or would-be asylum seekers looking for a way into the United Kingdom. By 1997 sufficient numbers of people had built up in Calais for the Red Cross to open a camp in an old abandoned warehouse that had been used during construction. The camp, known as Sangatte, swelled quickly, and by 2001 there were almost 1,500 people living in it. In 2015 that number had doubled, with authorities stating that between January and July, 37,000 people had been intercepted either trying to enter the tunnel, or transportation vehicles heading into it. This has led to deaths of nine migrants, as well as a van driver in 2017 who was killed after his van hit a roadblock erected by protestors blocking an autoroute leading to the tunnel near Calais.

A Modern Wonder of the World

In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers compiled a list of what they believed were the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, highlighting the greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century. And there was only one tunnel that made it onto the list.

The Channel Tunnel will rightly be regarded as one of the most important projects of the last century. A mammoth undertaking nearly two hundred years in the imagination, that pushed human endeavour further to its limits, and further than some had ever thought possible. But one made all the more astonishing by the fact this was a joint venture between these two eternally quarrelling cousins.

Over 8000 years ago it would have been possible to walk from Britain to France over frozen ice. As temperatures rose, these two pieces of land, which would eventually go on to form countries, were separated. There they remained – so close, but yet so far – until 1990 when an Englishman and a Frenchman shook hands through a small hole 70 metres beneath the waves.

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