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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Ten years of the Channel Tunnel

By David Eades
BBC News correspondent

Francois Mitterand and the Queen at tunnel opening ceremony (pic: Eurotunnel)
The tunnel was declared open with ceremonies on both sides of the Channel

It was one of those history book days.

To think of all the madcap schemes dreamed up over centuries to build a land link from England to France... and now, finally, the Channel Tunnel was a reality.

On May 6th 1994 I drove my car ever so gently down the ramp to board 'Le Shuttle' for the first time. For some years I had followed every twist and turn of a project now considered by engineers at least as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Covering it for the BBC I had counted up the mounting debts owed to the world's 100-plus banks prepared to pour their money ($21bn or 12bn) into this vast black hole. I totted up too, the number of accidents - deaths among them - as the tunnel builders raced against time to complete the three parallel tunnels.

I had reported on the environmental campaigns waged against it, from local complaints about lorry movements, to the protection of special bird nesting sites; and in the background, running like a painful, crooked spine through the Kentish countryside, the havoc wrought by a proposed high-speed rail link.

Bad dreams

Bizarrely, on the day it was to be opened with a fanfare by the Queen and French President Francois Mitterand, my only real concern as I nudged my way towards the shuttle was that I might scrape my little car down the side of the huge wagon doors on the way in.

It was a moment made for bad dreams: approach from the side, edge inwards, then straighten up: just imagine if people couldn't actually perform the manoeuvre; now that would be a story.

Back in 1994 of course we all thought we had done the difficult bits
John Noulton
TML director
I drove on, parked up - with disappointing ease - and set off. 35 minutes later, I emerged in Folkestone, the excitement and anticipation already dulled by the very simple efficiency of it all.

Since when millions of passengers every year have repeated frankly one of the most mundane journeys in Europe.

So how do the pioneers themselves feel, 10 years on? John Noulton was a director of the tunnel building contractors, TML, before switching to the tunnel operation with Eurotunnel.

"Back in 1994 of course we all thought we had done the difficult bits... all we had to do over the next 58 years, or so we thought, was to make the system work and pay."

Money fears

If only... even as the Channel Tunnel came into operation, the questions hanging over it were huge and varied.

Could it possibly repay the banks? Could the owners, Eurotunnel, actually sink the Channel ferry industry? Would it survive the first tunnel fire? And how long would it take the IRA to 'have a go'?

Some of those questions feel old-fashioned now.

Forget the IRA, but what about al-Qaeda? As for the ferries, they were allowed to join forces to compete against the fixed link and the passengers have never had it so good.

Tunnel design by Hector Horeau, 1851 (pic: Eurotunnel)
The possibility of a link had excited designers for more than a century
There was a major fire in 1996 and everyone was evacuated to safety, although the tunnel service was mothballed for seven months as repairs dragged on.

As for the high-speed link to London - it IS getting there and who knows, one day it might run the entire route from Paris or Brussels to London.

Other fears have been assuaged: rabid rodents have not invaded the county of Kent through the dry, warm tunnels; neither France nor Britain has yet attempted a land invasion.

Only asylum seekers and economic migrants have been accused of that - Eurotunnel has recorded no fewer than 54,000 would-be stowaways intercepted at its Coquelles terminal on the French side of the Channel.

So would they build it again?

If 'they' meant the private investors, the answer would surely be a resounding 'No!' If 'they' meant the tunnel building contractors, it might still be 'No' for all the problems they faced.

But if 'they' meant simply the individuals who devoted years of their lives to the single most romantic engineering challenge in the world, the answer would be an overwhelming 'Yes'.

For them the abiding image may not be the first car rolling gently onto the platform after that inaugural journey.

The real moment of glory came four years earlier, amid the rubble, the dust, the wet of a tunnel 40 metres below the sea, when a French and a British tunneller jack-hammered their way into each others' arms from either side of the Channel.

They had met in the middle, recreating a land link between two historical rivals for the first time since the Ice Age.

Today it is drama and crisis rather than romance. Eurotunnel is in a state of virtual meltdown, the shareholders have lost millions, but for many of us who saw this mythical beast being created, it was worth the effort - and the wait.




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