Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Wednesday, 5 May 2004 18:55 UK

Tunnel pioneer recalls first days

By Tanya Gupta
BBC News Online, South East

Maintenance sidings
Railway culture moved on at the Channel crossing, Denise says

When Eurotunnel recruited its first staff more than 10 years ago, the job centre told Denise Lewis that women would not be employed as train drivers.

But the ex-trucker from New Zealand went ahead, applying for a position as a bus driver at the 'Chunnel' instead.

As soon as she started her new job, the company said her engineering background qualified her to drive the trains.

Denise was one of just four women train drivers at the time, but she said: "It didn't make a difference."

'Something from nothing'

"No-one gave me a rough time," she goes on, in what was an "aspirational and pioneering" atmosphere among staff who felt they were "creating something from nothing".

Denise Lewis
The tunnel brought business to Kent - and a different culture
Denise Lewis

And Denise, 40, said a deliberate policy not to recruit workers from the national railway system played a big part in creating a new culture.

"We didn't have a culture of demarcation.

"Industrial relations issues were happening in the other railway environment all the time.

"For me, that was potentially a threat," she said.

Denise, who now lives in Capel le Ferne, Kent, moved to Folkestone in 1992 because the tunnel was being built and she liked the idea of a close link to Europe.

Lorry driver

She had grown up in New Zealand where she studied biotechnology before embarking on what New Zealanders call their "Overseas Experience", travelling abroad with a friend and working in bars and orchards.

Low pay pushed her on to plough her hard-earned savings into gaining lorry driving skills, a job which kept her occupied for nearly five years, she said.

Eventually, after living in London, she met her husband in a French restaurant and, looking for a different kind of lifestyle, the couple settled in Folkestone.

A family checking in at the tunnel
Staff deal with 7,000 to 8,000 cars on a busy day

"We go to France for dinner now," she said.

"The tunnel brought business to Kent - and a different culture."

And 10 years on, her memories of her early days working at the tunnel are of deserted platforms and times when there was just one train each day.

"You would never see just a single train now," she said.

"Ten years on and you see two or three trains at a time.

Evacuation exercise

"The staff love it most on a busy day when there can be 7,000 or 8,000 cars and you hardly notice it because the system is running like clockwork."

And in the early days, the trains did not always operate by the book, she said.

"There was one evacuation exercise where I was stuck for 10 hours in the tunnel in terrible working conditions - there were no toilets and I was stuck down there with no contact.

Eurotunnel shuttle at the French portal
The tunnel's constant temperature gives a smooth ride

"But it was exciting - it was an experiment," she said.

Denise, who has a 15-year-old stepson and will have worked for Eurotunnel for 11 years this August, says the tunnel is an engineering masterpiece.

"The atmosphere when you're working there is very quiet.

"It's almost eerie and there's the silence and the vastness of it.

"You can see all the pieces that make it work, such as the water pipes with the cooling water which keeps the tunnel at the constant temperature, which makes it a smooth ride.

"And there's the service tunnel with all the entrances which line up with the door of the trains.

"When you see that, you realise how well-engineered the whole thing is."

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