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Chunnel Makes Breakthrough

Chunnel Makes Breakthrough


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Shortly after 11 a.m. This was no ordinary hole–it connected the two ends of an underwater tunnel linking Great Britain with the European mainland for the first time in more than 8,000 years.

The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel,” was not a new idea. It had been suggested to Napoleon Bonaparte, in fact, as early as 1802. It wasn’t until the late 20th century, though, that the necessary technology was developed. In 1986, Britain and France signed a treaty authorizing the construction of a tunnel running between Folkestone, England, and Calais, France.

Over the next four years, nearly 13,000 workers dug 95 miles of tunnels at an average depth of 150 feet (45 meters) below sea the sea bed. Eight million cubic meters of soil were removed, at a rate of some 2,400 tons per hour. The completed Chunnel would have three interconnected tubes, including one rail track in each direction and one service tunnel. The price? A whopping $15 billion.

After workers drilled that final hole on December 1, 1990, they exchanged French and British flags and toasted each other with champagne. Final construction took four more years, and the Channel Tunnel finally opened for passenger service on May 6, 1994, with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and France’s President Francois Mitterrand on hand in Calais for the inaugural run. A company called Eurotunnel won the 55-year concession to operate the Chunnel, which is the crucial stretch of the Eurostar high-speed rail link between London and Paris. The regular shuttle train through the tunnel runs 31 miles in total—23 of those underwater—and takes 20 minutes, with an additional 15-minute loop to turn the train around. The Chunnel is the third-longest rail tunnel in the world, after the Seikan Tunnel in Japan and the Gotthard base tunnel in Switzerland.


For centuries, crossing the English Channel via boat or ferry had been considered a miserable task. The often inclement weather and choppy water could make even the most seasoned traveler seasick. It is perhaps not surprising then that as early as 1802 plans were being made for an alternate route across the English Channel.

This first plan, made by French engineer Albert Mathieu Favier, called for a tunnel to be dug under the water of the English Channel. This tunnel was to be large enough for horse-drawn carriages to travel through. Although Favier was able to get the backing of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, the British rejected Favier's plan. (The British feared, perhaps correctly, that Napoleon wanted to build the tunnel in order to invade England.)

Over the next two centuries, others created plans to connect Great Britain with France. Despite progress made on a number of these plans, including actual drilling, they all eventually fell through. Sometimes the reason was political discord, other times was financial problems. Still other times it was Britain's fear of invasion. All of these factors had to be solved before the Channel Tunnel could be built.


The Chunnel in History: Breakthrough or Continuity?

This paper places the Channel tunnel project (the Chunnel) in a historical context of privately financed transportation mega-projects. We examine the extent to which the Chunnel represents a break or continuity with the past by looking at the technological, financial and intuitional dimensions of innovation compared to previous projects. We also analyse the project’s economics from a long run perspective. Although rightly hailed as an engineering triumph, the Chunnel’s main innovation was in the scale and form of private financing. Rather than being something completely new, we argue that this was a reinvention of financing techniques commonly used in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The project’s failings in terms of cost overruns, delays and over-optimistic demand forecasts certainly represent continuity with the past. In contrast to previous authors, we argue that the Chunnel should be portrayed as both a financial and economic success story. To support this case, we present a new simplified economic analysis suggesting a 3% to 6% return over the very long term. The Chunnel’s place in history is assured, but its long term legacy and continued relevance will depend in part on how well we learn lessons for delivering the trans-European networks of the future.

Keywords: transport economics, cost-benefit analysis, Channel tunnel, fixed link, public-private partnerships


This Day in History: Dec 1, 1990: Chunnel makes breakthrough

Shortly after 11 a.m. on December 1, 1990, 132 feet below the English Channel, workers drill an opening the size of a car through a wall of rock. This was no ordinary hole--it connected the two ends of an underwater tunnel linking Great Britain with the European mainland for the first time in more than 8,000 years.

The Channel Tunnel, or "Chunnel," was not a new idea. It had been suggested to Napoleon Bonaparte, in fact, as early as 1802. It wasn't until the late 20th century, though, that the necessary technology was developed. In 1986, Britain and France signed a treaty authorizing the construction of a tunnel running between Folkestone, England, and Calais, France.

Over the next four years, nearly 13,000 workers dug 95 miles of tunnels at an average depth of 150 feet (45 meters) below sea level. Eight million cubic meters of soil were removed, at a rate of some 2,400 tons per hour. The completed Chunnel would have three interconnected tubes, including one rail track in each direction and one service tunnel. The price? A whopping $15 billion.

After workers drilled that final hole on December 1, 1990, they exchanged French and British flags and toasted each other with champagne. Final construction took four more years, and the Channel Tunnel finally opened for passenger service on May 6, 1994, with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and France's President Francois Mitterrand on hand in Calais for the inaugural run. A company called Eurotunnel won the 55-year concession to operate the Chunnel, which is the crucial stretch of the Eurostar high-speed rail link between London and Paris. The regular shuttle train through the tunnel runs 31 miles in total--23 of those underwater--and takes 20 minutes, with an additional 15-minute loop to turn the train around. The Chunnel is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world, after the Seikan Tunnel in Japan.

Also on This Day

Automotive Ford's assembly line starts rolling, 1913 />On this day in 1913, Henry Ford installs the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes. Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, was simple, sturdy and relatively inexpensive--but not inexpensive enough for Ford, who was determined to build "motor car[s] for the great multitude." ("When I'm through," he said, "about everybody will have one.") In order to lower the price of his cars, Ford figured, he would just have to find a way to build them more efficiently. Ford had been trying to increase his factories' productivity for years. The workers who built his Model N cars (the Model T's predecessor) arranged the parts in a row on the floor, put the under-construction auto on skids and dragged it down the line as they worked. Later, the streamlining process grew more sophisticated. Ford broke the Model T's assembly into 84 discrete steps, for example, and trained each of his workers to do just one. He also hired motion-study expert Frederick Taylor to make those jobs even more efficient. Meanwhile, he built machines that could stamp out parts automatically (and much more quickly than even the fastest human worker could). The most significant piece of Ford's efficiency crusade was the assembly line. Inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills, breweries, canneries and industrial bakeries, along with the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago's meat-packing plants, Ford installed moving lines for bits and pieces of the manufacturing process: For instance, workers built motors and transmissions on rope-and-pulley–powered conveyor belts. In December 1913, he unveiled the pièce de résistance: the moving-chassis assembly line. In February 1914, he added a mechanized belt that chugged along at a speed of six feet per minute. As the pace accelerated, Ford produced more and more cars, and on June 4, 1924, the 10-millionth Model T rolled off the Highland Park assembly line. Though the Model T did not last much longer--by the middle of the 1920s, customers wanted a car that was inexpensive and had all the bells and whistles that the Model T scorned--it had ushered in the era of the automobile for everyone. Civil War Lincoln gives State of the Union address, 1862 Cold War Antarctica made a military-free continent, 1959 Crime Defense presents its case in Hamptons murder trial, 2004 Disaster Students die in Chicago school fire, 1958 General Interest Presidential election goes to the House, 1824 Sergey Kirov murdered, 1934 Rosa Parks ignites bus boycot, 1955 Hollywood Trailblazing comic Richard Pryor born, 1940 Literary Due date for Victor Hugo, 1830 Music Bette Midler is born in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1945 Old West Elfego Baca battles Anglo cowboys, 1884 Presidential Congress decides outcome of presidential election, 1824 Sports Lee Trevino is born, 1939 Vietnam War Johnson Administration makes plans to bomb North Vietnam, 1964 Situation in Cambodia worsens, 1971 World War I New state declared in the Balkans, 1919 World War II Stettinius succeeds Hull as secretary of state, 1944

Brit Who Made Channel Tunnel Breakthrough Voted to Leave EU ‘Colossus’

103 PIERRE VERDY/AFP via Getty Images

DOVER, England (AP) – One tunnelling from France, the other digging from Britain, the two men smashed with pummeling jackhammers through the last slivers of rock separating their nations.

Through the newly created hole, Graham Fagg, of Dover, England, and Philippe Cozette, of Calais, France, enthusiastically grasped each other’s outstretched hands. Then, they posed with their nations’ flags for photos that broadcast a message of friendship to the world. The French and the British, neighbours until then separated by the seas and with a long history of war and rivalry but also of alliances and admiration, were now physically and permanently joined, seemingly closer than ever.

How poignant and instructive those images now look, as Brexit drives Britain and France apart.

On that historic day on Dec. 1, 1990, in their hard hats and under billions of tons of rock and seawater deep under the English Channel, neither Fagg, Cozette, nor anyone could have foreseen that the ever-closer bonds of unity and shared ambitions embodied by the newly dug Eurotunnel would unravel in less than 30 years.

“A fabulous moment,” Cozette says of that watershed that turned Fagg and him into symbols of cooperation and the inexorable march of human technology and will. “On our side, there were tears.”

“History made,” Fagg recalls. “Time passes so quickly, doesn’t it?”

Farage to Breitbart: Brexit a Historic Day for United Kingdom, Europe, and the Western World https://t.co/oQT4dlOfkf

&mdash Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) January 31, 2020

Because they were such important protagonists in Anglo-French history, and because Britain’s departure Friday from the European Union represents another momentous milestone for both their nations, The Associated Press brought Cozette and Fagg back together this week.

Because their unique story never gets old. And because it offers pointers about where France and Britain might go next.

In the cosy front room of Fagg’s Dover home, not underground this time, the men howled with laughter as they watched archive footage of themselves vigorously digging their way to their first meeting, nearly 30 years ago as they joined the two parts of the underwater tunnel into one.

Cozette, now 66, recalled how he got Fagg’s first name wrong, saying “welcome to France, Bob,” as they shook hands through the opening.

Later, in celebrations at Dover Castle, “We sang `La Marseillaise´ and `God Save the Queen,'” he said.

“French and English together. It was nice, super.”

Fagg, now 71, recalled the Champagne, wine and nibbles that the French plied him with, such a contrast to fare on the British side: “Tea, coffee and water and sandwiches.”

Because the British tunnelers weren’t allowed to smoke in their half of the tunnel, they’d head over to the French side to light up.

And the takeaway from this reunion, Cozette and Fagg’s first in nearly five years?

Perhaps this: Brexit is certainly a new chapter in ties between France and Britain, but it most certainly is not the end.

In part, they both agreed, because of the tunnel they helped build.

“The British made a choice. You have to respect that,” Cozette said. “But the links that have been created over centuries between our two countries, and in particular our two regions, because of their proximity but also because of the tunnel, they are very important for me.”

“I think we’ll get used to it,” he added. “Things will go back to the way they were, before Britain was part of Europe.”

In 1975, and like a large majority of Britons, Fagg voted “Yes” in a referendum that asked whether Britain should stay in the European Community, the EU’s predecessor.

But when Britain was asked again in 2016, Fagg then voted with the small majority that wanted out.

The EU, he feels, has become too big and overbearing, “a colossus, a very expensive colossus.”

But, on the ground, Fagg is not expecting massive change.

“Before we joined [the EU], people still used to go to France, they used to come from France to here,” Fagg said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different.”

And three decades after their first handshake, and like Britain and France, Cozette and Fagg are adding new twists to their story, too.

Unbeknownst in advance to anyone, Fagg used the reunion to spring a surprise on his French friend.

In their first encounter in the tunnel, Fagg had been embarrassed when Cozette presented him with a gift: a piece of chalk dug up from the tunnel on the French side.

“I attached a red, white and blue ribbon to it, the colors of England and France,” Cozette recalled.

Fagg hadn’t had time to prepare a gift of his own. Only the previous night, at the end of his shift, had his boss told Fagg that he’d been selected to make the breakthrough the next morning.

“I said, `You’re bloody joking,'” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got plans for tomorrow.'”

The response from his boss: “‘You’re going to have to change them.'”

So when Cozette had given him the chunk of chalk, Fagg in return gifted the Frenchman the only thing he had handy: his identification token that all the tunnelers had to carry, like soldiers’ dog tags, so they could be identified if they were involved in an accident.

“I still have his token at home,” Cozette said.

Now, it was Cozette’s turn to be caught empty handed.

His turn to be embarrassed when Fagg presented him with a stone, encrusted with crystals, that he’d dug up from the beginnings of another cross-Channel tunnel in 1974 that was later scrapped.


WI: Chunnel is Made in the Interwar Years

The actual Channel Tunnel wasn't (and isn't) economically feasible and any assessment done by actual tunnel engineers would confirm that. An inter war tunnel would be worse, being even slower to build while having even less traffic to carry.

If it happens it would be political, governments wasting a lot taxpayers money on a vanity project. Worse a vanity project that will take so long to build that their successors will end up taking the credit. I can't see it happening myself

Carl Schwamberger

Marktaha

El Pip

Of course the problem with a tunnel as a public works scheme is that it doesn't employ many people (as a matter of logistics not many can fit on the face at one time) and you do need to be a specialist to work at the face properly (unless you don't mind regular collapses and a lot of deaths).

Look More Closely Later

A Channel Tunnel is useful during WW2 to anyone who can hold and protect from attacks (including bombing from aircraft and artillery shelling of the 'portals') both ends. If both ends cannot be held securely, it is irrelevant (and no doubt floodable and/or the portals easily choked by rubble.)

Edit:
I have a feeling this has been discussed before, but I don't have the time right now to go looking for links.

El Pip

If it somehow got built (and assuming strict butterfly nets to stop other changes) the relevance in 1940 would be for allowing the BEF to escape with it's equipment and vehicles as well as as many French troops that wanted to escape as well. A Britain with a (mostly) fully equipped BEF in the summer of 1940 is in a very different position to OTL.

Of course the issue is that there would be butterflies. A fixed connection to the continent would make the 'limited liability' British policy of the 1930s much less viable, Britain may start re-equipping the Army earlier perhaps. If that happpens what in the RAF and RN doesn't get built or do the British run the economy hotter, building up problems for later.

On the German side the tunnel becomes a vital target, certainly there will be a Panzer thrust aimed at it but you might the Fallschirmjägers sent to capture the French end to 'cut off' the British retreat. Or if Goering is particularly insane about the prospects of the Luftwaffe they might try to capture the British end as well to provide a ready made invasion route.

So I absolutely agree that if things go broadly as OTL then most likely the tunnel ends up flooded/blocked and won't reopen till post-war, I think it would be far from irrelevant in the run up to war and the opening stages.

Magnum

Some thoughts, assuming it gets built:

- the British will be in a position to deploy an armoured brigade, if not more, to join the thrust into the Saarland, and may very well have practiced the maneuver in conjuction with the French repeatedly. It's an open question to what extent this changes the French political calculus. Militarily, idk if even putting Erwin Rommel himself at the head of said force would have been enough to get the French to follow through, even assuming a complete, if narrow, breakthrough of the German lines.
- the tunnel will probably have multiple openings protected by reinforced concrete, so I doubt the Luftwaffe could block it, especially given that it's not really in Stuka range until the Germans penetrate in Belgium
- the possibility that the Germans might attempt an airborne drop on either end of the tunnel will not be lost on the Allies, who will be forced to keep troops back. If those troops come from Britain paying for a larger force early on, and from France feeding slightly fewer reserve formations hap-hazardously into the guillotine that was the German breakthrough, it will have massive consequences for the Battle of Calais, and may very well be enough to allow the BEF enough time to retreat towards the tunnel head
- if there is a solid beachhead around Calais with the entire BEF in it, Churchill might not even order a retreat at all, and instead ordering them to stand and fight
- Can the Germans pull off Case Red while doing a holding action in front of Calais? My guess is YES. Will they do so? Probably, probably not. If Hitler orders the pocket to be destroyed before proceeding south, it will devolve into a battle of attrition that will cost the German army severely. To what extent this butterflies into a different French surrender is anyone's guess, and good arguments can probably be made for all sorts of scenarios

Father Maryland

If it somehow got built (and assuming strict butterfly nets to stop other changes) the relevance in 1940 would be for allowing the BEF to escape with it's equipment and vehicles as well as as many French troops that wanted to escape as well. A Britain with a (mostly) fully equipped BEF in the summer of 1940 is in a very different position to OTL.

Of course the issue is that there would be butterflies. A fixed connection to the continent would make the 'limited liability' British policy of the 1930s much less viable, Britain may start re-equipping the Army earlier perhaps. If that happpens what in the RAF and RN doesn't get built or do the British run the economy hotter, building up problems for later.

On the German side the tunnel becomes a vital target, certainly there will be a Panzer thrust aimed at it but you might the Fallschirmjägers sent to capture the French end to 'cut off' the British retreat. Or if Goering is particularly insane about the prospects of the Luftwaffe they might try to capture the British end as well to provide a ready made invasion route.

So I absolutely agree that if things go broadly as OTL then most likely the tunnel ends up flooded/blocked and won't reopen till post-war, I think it would be far from irrelevant in the run up to war and the opening stages.

Peg Leg Pom

E of pi

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Nick P

A few thoughts:
What type of tunnel is it? Is it simply a large twin (or quad) track tunnel or is it like todays version with 2 train tubes and a third small one for workers access?
What does an early Chunnel mean for other big tunnel plans like Isle of Wight, Scotland-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden?


Wartime
One

It was often suggested that a military base would be sited at or near the British end. Some sort of fortress that would have to both face outwards to the land and against the tunnel to stop attackers. France might well do the same.

Two
The tunnel is a prize. It does not have to be flooded. come to an agreement whereby each power has guards at sentry posts at each end and in the middle to warn of enemy attacks based on a dead mans handle operation and constant telephone check ins.

Three
In 1940 France falls, the BEF retreats and the tunnel is flooded.

What is then done at either end to prevent enemy forces from swimming in via mini-submarine and closing your sluice gates before pumping it dry? How do you check that nothing sneaky is happening?
Would you totally collapse your entrance portal, would you build a fortress around it or maintain a small hatch for divers?
You could block the tunnel with old trucks or railway wagons to make it difficult to access. Booby traps too.

I think we can be sure that the tunnel won't be reopened until 1945 at the earliest and probably not until 1950. I have no doubt that once D-Day happens in Normandy the Germans will destroy their end just in case the Allies try to break in that way. Repairs after 5 years of flooding and war damage will not be quick as all the track and cabling and lights and ventilation will need replacing.
They could skip the electrics and run steam but the drivers would soon need to wear oxygen masks. I doubt whether smokeless locos or the early diesel locos would have the power needed to pull large trains carrying tanks and troops at any realistic speed.
An actual use would be for PLUTO - running pipes of oil and fuel across the Channel for a few months till the docks at Cherbourg and Amsterdam are back in use. They could work around the pipes to clean up and repair the tunnel until then.

Bureaucromancer

A few thoughts:
What type of tunnel is it? Is it simply a large twin (or quad) track tunnel or is it like todays version with 2 train tubes and a third small one for workers access?
What does an early Chunnel mean for other big tunnel plans like Isle of Wight, Scotland-Ireland, Denmark-Sweden?


Wartime
One

It was often suggested that a military base would be sited at or near the British end. Some sort of fortress that would have to both face outwards to the land and against the tunnel to stop attackers. France might well do the same.

Two
The tunnel is a prize. It does not have to be flooded. come to an agreement whereby each power has guards at sentry posts at each end and in the middle to warn of enemy attacks based on a dead mans handle operation and constant telephone check ins.

Three
In 1940 France falls, the BEF retreats and the tunnel is flooded.

What is then done at either end to prevent enemy forces from swimming in via mini-submarine and closing your sluice gates before pumping it dry? How do you check that nothing sneaky is happening?
Would you totally collapse your entrance portal, would you build a fortress around it or maintain a small hatch for divers?
You could block the tunnel with old trucks or railway wagons to make it difficult to access. Booby traps too.

I think we can be sure that the tunnel won't be reopened until 1945 at the earliest and probably not until 1950. I have no doubt that once D-Day happens in Normandy the Germans will destroy their end just in case the Allies try to break in that way. Repairs after 5 years of flooding and war damage will not be quick as all the track and cabling and lights and ventilation will need replacing.
They could skip the electrics and run steam but the drivers would soon need to wear oxygen masks. I doubt whether smokeless locos or the early diesel locos would have the power needed to pull large trains carrying tanks and troops at any realistic speed.
An actual use would be for PLUTO - running pipes of oil and fuel across the Channel for a few months till the docks at Cherbourg and Amsterdam are back in use. They could work around the pipes to clean up and repair the tunnel until then.

The PLUTO angle is one that hasn't occurred to me before, and I agree. Almost to the point where I wonder if the quick post D-Day clearing to the extent needed for a basically uninhabitable utility corridor might become long term. Any pre WWI tunnel would have been single tracked, and between the damage, capacity constraints and general symbolism of the thing, I wonder if we might get a 1950s build of a second tunnel closer to OTLs, or maybe even a road bridge, rather than a restoration of the original.

Anybody got ideas as to the impact on the rail networks if this had happened? Aside from the obvious(?) preservation of the Great Central I'm not really very specific about what would happen.


Chunnel Makes Breakthrough - HISTORY

The Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France holds the record for the longest undersea tunnel in the world – 50km (31 miles) long. More than 20 years after its opening, it carries more than 10 million passengers a year – and more than 1.6 million lorries – via its rail-based shuttle service.

What many people don’t know, however, is that when owner Eurotunnel won the contract to build its undersea connection, the firm was obliged to come up with plans for a second Channel Tunnel… by the year 2000. Although those plans were published the same year, the tunnel still has not gone ahead.

The second ‘Chunnel’ isn’t the only underwater tunnel to remain a possibility. For centuries, there have been discussions about other potential tunnelling projects around the British Isles, too. These include a link between the island of Orkney and the Scottish mainland, a tunnel between the Republic of Ireland and Wales and one between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Some of these tunnels yet may happen: even the Channel Tunnel built for the railway in the 1980s was the culmination of nearly 200 years of thought and discussion.

At the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s own preference was for a road tunnel, not the current railway service. She liked the idea, some believe, because cars “represented freedom and individualism”.

Despite Margaret Thatcher’s wishes to the contrary, the Channel Tunnel was not built as a road tunnel (Credit: Alamy)

But Thatcher’s project was considered unsafe, says Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe. It’s one thing to send trains through the tunnel at wide intervals it’s quite another to allow hundreds of drivers through in an endless stream. Should a crash or pile-up occur 15 miles out to sea, it would be very hard to rescue those trapped in the chaos.

“It was considered not the right thing to do, even though Margaret Thatcher pushed very hard for it,” says Keefe.

The prime minister compromised. “She said, ‘All right, I’ll go along with the safety argument, I’ll accept that, but as technology improves I want a commitment to plan a second tunnel – a road tunnel’,” Keefe adds, paraphrasing. Even when the plans were made and released more than 20 years after the prime minister’s demand, they were still considered too risky. But that might change.

One of the major problems – noxious fumes from hundreds of vehicles – will become less of an issue with the rise of hybrid and electric cars, says Keefe. Safety, too, may be a more minor concern, because autonomous driving technology already allows some experimental cars to pilot themselves along motorways. They could theoretically do the same in an undersea tunnel, potentially reducing the chances of a crash or jam.

Workers excavate rock in the Channel Tunnel in 1989, 8km from the UK coast (Credit: Alamy)

If technology does evolve in these ways, then plans for a second tunnel could be revived. “I think it’s highly likely that conversations like this will take place in the coming 10 or 20 years,” Keefe says.

Alan Stevens at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory agrees. He suggests that by the 2030s technology may have reached a critical point.

“You’d have to say only automated vehicles of a certain standard, and ones that could move together – then you’d get a nice flow through your tube,” he says. “It’s certainly something that I think will be thought about.”

Tunnel vision

The first meaningful attempt to build a tunnel across the English Channel happened much earlier than most people think.

In 1880, a century before the modern project got underway in 1988, work started on experimental tunnels at the base of Abbot’s Cliff near Folkestone. Creating an undersea connection with France across the English Channel was something that had been talked about since the early 1800s, and supporters included Napoleon Bonaparte.

In some places, the men worked with hand tools. But they also had an ingenious contraption with them – a tunnel boring machine. As compressed air in the machine’s motor forced the rotary head into action, tough rock in front would fall away.

In 1880, the South Eastern Railway Company used boring machines of the type shown here to tunnel an undersea connection with France (Credit: Alamy)

Keefe is one of relatively few people today to have visited the site. Deep inside the warren, the aging tubes carved out by the boring machine are mostly featureless, though there is one piece of Victorian graffiti scratched into the rock: “THIS TUNNEL WAS BEGUNUG N [sic] in 1880” – signed “WILLIAM SHARP”.

“They look like you imagine an old Cornish tin mine to look like,” says Keefe, describing the place. “They’re low wooden [beams], pretty intact and pretty dry. But they are nothing like what you really need to run an international undersea tunnel.”

The venture was typically ambitious for the time, says Graeme Bickerdike, rail engineer and editor of engineering history website Forgotten Relics. “Nothing seemed to faze the Victorians,” he says. “They had a vision of the transformational nature of railways and they clearly saw a link to the continent being critical to that vision.”

But it was not to be. Beyond the technical challenges, there were political fears about building a direct connection to a country with which Great Britain had so frequently been at war. Sir Edward Watkin, who was in charge of the excavations, at one point suggested that in the event of conflict the entrance to the tunnel could be collapsed with a mine wired to a button somewhere – perhaps even as far away as London.

Although the 1880 tunnel never was completed, the Channel Tunnel intersected with the century-old version during its construction (Credit: Alamy)

Tunnel fever is still with us. Recently, the idea of a Welsh-Irish link was mulled in a 2014 document by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (Cilt). The report argued that by 2035, such a connection could be a “serious topic of debate”. But the proposal has “not gone much further since”, says Andrew Potter, who chairs Cilt’s Cymru-Wales committee. Part of the problem is that it would be an exceptionally long connection – at 100km (62 miles) or so it would be roughly twice the length of the Channel Tunnel.

Further north from there, a much shorter distance – between 10 and 25km (6 to 15 miles) – exists between various coastal points in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That’s short enough to build a bridge across, though the cost would certainly amount to a few billion pounds. Still, that hasn’t stopped the idea of a tunnel or bridge being mooted by politicians in both countries in recent years.

In the meantime, British tunnelling expertise is being put to good use elsewhere. The most obvious example is London’s Crossrail, which is the largest civil construction project in Europe. A smaller but significant project will soon follow – the Lower Thames Crossing will connect Essex and Kent, in part via a new tunnel under the River Thames.

Today, London’s Crossrail project is using UK tunnelling expertise (Credit: Alamy)

And further afield, British engineers are also assisting with the development of another major venture: the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link. Linking the Danish island of Lolland with the German island of Fehmarn, the tunnel will feature an 18km (11 mile) undersea portion. Construction is due to start as early as the end of 2017.

Richard Miller of engineering consultancy Ramboll UK, which is Danish-owned, explains that the tunnel will be pre-fabricated on land, floated out to position and then lowered into a trench on the seabed. This is known as an immersed tube, or IMT, design and has been used before, including for the Sydney Harbour Tunnel in Australia.

The Sydney Harbour Tunnel, whose entrance is shown here, uses the same immersed tube design that other large projects will use (Credit: Alamy)

“The casting is on land, so there’s no construction in the ground in dirty wet holes,” says Miller. The Channel Tunnel and Crossrail’s tunnels, by contrast, were created using a cylindrical tunnel boring machine (TBM).

Pipe dreams

The Channel Tunnel came in at £4.65bn (£8.5bn, or $11bn, today) and the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link will probably cost more than 7bn euros ($8.2bn).

That hasn’t stopped some dreaming, though. Take Elon Musk’s Hyperloop – a proposed, ultra-fast mode of transport in which pods lifted by magnetic levitation are propelled along tubes. If it ever becomes commercially viable, some have wondered whether it could one day link Europe and the United States with a gigantic tube spanning the Atlantic Ocean.

“Some of the really interesting tunnels they’re looking at now are variations of floating tunnels, so the tunnel isn’t on the seabed, it’s floating within the water body,” says Miller.

That might make a trans-Atlantic connection a little more feasible, but there would still be extreme costs involved and, of course, safety issues. How to evacuate passengers if a pod stalls half-way between continents?

John Keefe can’t resist pondering the notion, though. “What a brilliant, brilliant idea,” he says. But he acknowledges the huge hurdles any such design would face.

Even so, perhaps there is reason to be hopeful.

“Our tunnel was a dream for 200 years,” he says. “Maybe 200 years ago, the channel looked as big a challenge to Napoleon’s engineers as crossing the Atlantic does today.”

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.


1802 -- French engineer Albert Mathieu Favier created a plan to dig a tunnel under the English Channel for horse-drawn carriages.

1856 -- Frenchman Aimé Thomé de Gamond created a plan to dig two tunnels, one from Great Britain and one from France, that meet in the middle on an artificial island.

1880 -- Sir Edward Watkin began drilling two underwater tunnels, one from the British side and the other from the French. However, after two years, the British public's fears of an invasion won out and Watkins was forced to stop drilling.

1973 -- Britain and France agreed on an underwater railway that would link their two countries. Geologic investigations began and digging started. However, two years later, Britain pulled out because of an economic recession.

November 1984 -- British and French leaders once again agreed that a Channel link would be mutually beneficial. Since they realized that their own governments could not fund such a monumental project, they held a contest.

April 2, 1985 -- A contest to find a company that could plan, fund, and operate a Channel link was announced.

January 20, 1986 -- The winner of the contest was announced. The design for a Channel Tunnel (or Chunnel), an underwater railway, was chosen.

February 12, 1986 -- Representatives from both the United Kingdom and France signed a treaty approving the Channel Tunnel.

December 15, 1987 -- Digging began on the British side, starting with the middle, service tunnel.

February 28, 1988 -- Digging began on the French side, starting with the middle, service tunnel.

December 1, 1990 -- The linking of the first tunnel was celebrated. It was the first time in history that Great Britain and France were connected.

May 22, 1991 -- The British and French met in the middle of the northern running tunnel.

June 28, 1991 -- The British and French met in the middle of the southern running tunnel.

December 10, 1993 -- The first test-run of the entire Channel Tunnel was conducted.

May 6, 1994 -- The Channel Tunnel officially opened. French President Francois Mitterrand and British Queen Elizabeth II were on hand to celebrate.

November 18, 1996 -- A fire broke out on one of the trains in the southern running tunnel (taking passengers from France to Great Britain). Although all the people on board were rescued, the fire did a lot of damage to the train and to the tunnel.


The Chunnel: The World’s Longest Underwater Tunnel for Kids

Tonight we are going to learn about the longest undersea tunnel in the world. This tunnel actually goes under the ground at the bottom of the ocean. England and France and separated by a large area of water called a “channel.” Before the tunnel people had to take boats to go back and forth between the two countries. A long time ago someone had the idea to dig very deep below the ocean and all the way across to the other side. Because it a tunnel and crosses a channel, it was called the “chunnel.”

The first person to have the idea of digging this tunnel a Frechman named Albert Mathieu. At the time they didn’t have large digging machines, so they would have had to do much of it using shovels and horses and wagons. Later, others were going to try to dig the tunnel, at another time some even started to dig from both sides, but France and England didn’t get along so some were worried it would be used to attack the other. For this reason, they waited to start building the tunnel.

Finally, many years later, both England and France agreed on a plan and began digging from both sides of the land. At that time they had better digging machines, so could work much faster digging into the ground and removing all the dirt. Even though the project was very difficult and took a lot of time, both sides kept working and working. It even cost much, much more than they expected, but they were determined to finish the tunnel under the ocean to connect the two countries. They knew once the tunnel was finished it would make moving back and forth very fast and easy. It would also make both of the countries better friends because they could share more things very quickly. Along with digging the tunnel, they began to build train tracks, so a fast moving train could drive between England and French. Engineers had to be very smart and understand everything about the ground and ocean in order to build it. An engineer is someone who goes to school to learn how to build things.

After six years of digging and building, the chunnel was almost complete. Two workers, Graham Fagg and Phillipe Cozette, were chosen to break through the last wall of dirt that connected the two sizes. Many reporters were there as well, since everyone in the world was watching them finish the tunnel. When Graham and Phillipe finished digging through, everyone cheered and gave hugs and celebrated. They were so excited to have the tunnel finally finished. Sometimes even today Graham and Phillipe call each other to remember what an exciting day it was when they helped finish the tunnel.

Soon afterward, the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth, and the President of France, Francois Mitterand, took trains from both sides and met in the middle to shake hands and congratulate each other on the great achievement.

In the end, digging the chunnel cost 16 billion dollars and even the lives of a few of the workers, but it was an amazing accomplishment. At its lowest point it is 250 feet deep. That is the same as 20 houses stacked on top of each other. It is 23 miles long and every day carries people and food and other things back and forth between France and England.

Like the engineers who built the chunnel, you can learn math and science and other subjects that are in important in school. They had to read and study and finish tests the best they could in order to have the knowledge to build the chunnel. You can also learn to work hard like the many workers who helped dig the tunnel and kept going and going even when it was difficult. Always remember great things take time and patience and practice and work.


THE CHUNNEL: The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel.<i> By Drew Fetherston</i> .<i> Times Books: 384 pp., $35</i>

Large engineering projects are invariably multidimensional, and their planning and execution can stretch more than decades, even centuries. Not infrequently, the greatest challenges to overcome before the engineering begins are the political, ecological and economic obstacles.

The Panama Canal, among the great projects heralding the enormous technological achievements of the 20th century, is one example. When Columbus claimed America for Spain in the late 15th century, he was, of course, looking for a westward route to the East. For centuries, explorers searched for a natural waterway along the coast of North, Central and South America that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Finding no natural solution, a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, in places no wider than 50 miles, was proposed, and a survey was ordered by Charles I of Spain in 1534. Among the objections raised to a canal was a concern that nations other than Spain would benefit from such an easy trade route and that connecting two oceans naturally separated by land might lead to uncontrollable inundation.

Alternatives to a Panamanian crossing were advanced and, by the early 19th century, many alternatives had been proposed, including a canal across Nicaragua and a massive railway that would carry ships high and dry across Mexico. It was the Frenchman Ferdinand De Lesseps who successfully led the effort that resulted in the Suez Canal and who finally took charge in 1879 and initiated the project to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, then a province of Colombia. The French made only modest progress, however, because De Lesseps relied too heavily on the Suez model, a sea-level canal, and made engineering decisions that were not appropriate for the enormous elevation changes encountered in Central America. Frustrated by tropical diseases that decimated the work force and by financial problems, the French consortium abandoned the project after about a decade.

Ten years later, the United States, after encouraging the revolution that created the Republic of Panama, bought the rusting French equipment at bargain prices and, with it, the enormous engineering challenge that had defeated De Lesseps. After removing the political, health and financial problems that blocked the canal, American designers faced some difficult engineering decisions, such as building the famous locks that could elevate ships 80 feet. The completion of the project took still another decade, and the canal opened in 1914, almost four centuries after it was proposed.

The story of great projects like the Panama Canal provides the stuff of epic tales, and few authors have matched David McCullough’s achievements in telling them. His books about the canal and about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge are models of the genre. Drew Fetherston, a newspaper columnist and reporter, chose a late 20th century project analogous to the Panama Canal: the Chunnel. The bare bones of the story lead one to think that it has the same potential as McCullough’s subjects because of the richness of its history. The idea of an English Channel tunnel emerged as many as 250 years before it became a reality in 1993.

The story of the Channel tunnel has the requisite political and economic obstacles of a large engineering project, and there’s even a public health issue: the British national fear of rabid animals finding their way to rabies-free England through a fixed link with France. However, whether it is the dark subterranean and subaqueous nature of the Channel tunnel project or the lack of a larger-than-life hero like De Lesseps or the Brooklyn Bridge’s John Roebling, the “amazing story” promised in Fetherston’s pedestrian subtitle is not fully realized.

There is a bewildering cast of characters in the Channel tunnel story, and Fetherston interviewed 58 men and women who played important roles in the project. Some come alive in the book, but their presence is fleeting. One of the few women in the story, geotechnical engineer Helen Nattrass, appears only for a few pages. Her responsibility was to probe ahead of the tunnel-boring machines so that the geology could be known with some confidence before the massive machines reached a given spot. Such probing was necessary to be sure that the tunnel was progressing within the so-called lower chalk marl, the earthy clay geological formation beneath the English Channel, in some places only 20 meters thick, that made the tunnel an economically and technically feasible undertaking. Unfortunately, Nattrass and her probing disappear after a few pages.

Fetherston acknowledges that, like the tunnel’s engineers, he had to make “hard choices about size” for his book and that writers, like engineers, have to “deal in the art of the possible.” He tells with clarity and conviction how the diameter of the tubes was determined. The smaller a tube, the less expensive it would be to build, but the economics of carrying cars and trucks through the tunnel on oversized railroad cars argued for a larger bore. Other technical factors determining the size of the tubes and the clearance for trains have to do with the piston effect, which refers to how trains compress air ahead of them and thus require more power to maintain their speed. Indeed, the speed of the trains is effectively limited by this phenomenon, and tough decisions had to be made about how to deal with it.

The piston effect also required the construction of numerous cross tunnels, or piston-relief ducts, connecting the two main tubes so that compressed air from one tube could escape into the other. The cross tunnels had to be dug by hand, and determining their diameter was another hard decision that affected the economics of the enterprise. In the end, there was a compromise between a large tunnel facilitating a profitable economic operation and a smaller one that would be more affordable to dig. Fetherston is at his best describing the trade-offs and how the engineering challenges were met.

Perhaps because of his background as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Fetherston writes at length about the financing of the tunnel. It might be said that the financial and political obstacles were in fact more difficult to overcome than the technical, for an English Channel tunnel was actually begun by the English in the 19th century and could have been completed with the technology of the time. The British desire to remain a true island also had a lot to do with why that effort was abandoned. With the advent of the airplane, cultural opposition became somewhat defused, and the idea for a Channel tunnel was reopened in the 1950s by the international lawyer Frank Davidson, who has since remained involved with such macro-engineering (technically large-scale and extremely expensive) projects. Fetherston’s treatment of Davidson’s involvement in the revitalization of the idea of a tunnel is more developed than most episodes in the book, and it makes for one of the more interesting aspects of the story.

Perhaps “The Chunnel’s” most sustained theme lies in Fetherston’s describing and explaining the differences between the English and French and how they dreamed, planned and executed the Channel tunnel. Fetherston makes clear not only the educational and cultural distinctions between British and French engineers but also the technical distinctions between their machinery and techniques. He describes how British workmen changed in private labyrinthine locker rooms, whereas the French used a large open room known as the salle des pendus, the hall of the hanged men, so named because clothes and belongings were hung on chains that passed through pulleys and could be raised to the high ceiling and locked in place. Throughout “The Chunnel,” Fetherston reveals other fascinating cultural differences, ranging from the nature of the workers’ dress to their use of cigarettes.

Otherwise, however, reading “The Chunnel” is like tunneling for 20-odd miles: It can be tedious. Fetherston might have helped orient the reader by adding chapter titles and anticipating the story’s action and suspense a little more, as Nattrass did for the tunnel machine operators. As “The Chunnel” is constructed--except for the first chapter, which describes the breakthrough joining of the tunnels dug by the British and French crews--the book takes the reader headlong into the darkness without a narrative work light. There is little piston relief between the chapters, and when Frank Davidson reappears on the last page of the book’s epilogue, more than one reader is likely to be surprised Davidson was nowhere to be seen for about 200 pages.

“The Chunnel” is not the equal of McCullough’s “Path Between the Seas,” but Fetherston has written a book that deserves to be read. It conveys the complexity of large engineering projects in a way that few books have. One can wish that he had only had more concern for the reading comfort of his passengers and less tunnel vision in telling the story of a project that is to the end of the 20th century what the Panama Canal was to the beginning.


Watch the video: The Channel Tunnel Fire. Disaster (July 2022).


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