Opening of the Channel Tunnel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the opening of the Channel Tunnel, linking England with the Continent, a new age in European rail travel and freight movement began.

Summary of Event

A tunnel that would allow people to travel beneath the English Channel between England and France had been considered a technological possibility since the eighteenth century, when scientists and engineers first proposed an underwater tunnel through which horse-drawn vehicles could pass. Progress on such a project was postponed repeatedly, however, because of economic difficulties and political tensions between England and France. Finally, in 1986, an Anglo-French consortium received a concession to construct the Channel Tunnel. The thirty-one-mile-long tunnel, which cost more than $15 billion to construct, was officially opened on May 6, 1994, in a ceremony attended by British and French leaders. Regular train service through the tunnel, however, was deferred to later in the year because of the need to test equipment. The Channel Tunnel, popularly known as the Chunnel, represented a phenomenal feat of engineering and became the most expensive infrastructure project ever financed privately up to that time. Channel Tunnel English Channel;Channel Tunnel [kw]Opening of the Channel Tunnel (May 6, 1994) [kw]Channel Tunnel, Opening of the (May 6, 1994) [kw]Tunnel, Opening of the Channel (May 6, 1994) Channel Tunnel English Channel;Channel Tunnel [g]Europe;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [g]United Kingdom;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [g]England;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [g]France;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [c]Transportation;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [c]Economics;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] [c]Engineering;May 6, 1994: Opening of the Channel Tunnel[08870] Bénard, André Morton, Alastair Thatcher, Margaret Elizabeth II Mitterrand, François

Serious proposals for a tunnel under the English Channel date back more than two centuries. In 1802, Albert Mathieu-Favier, Mathieu-Favier, Albert a French mining engineer, suggested to Napoleon that a tunnel “accessible to men, horses, and carriages” be dug in the chalk layer underneath the English Channel. Stagecoaches would travel through the tunnel; transit time was estimated at five hours. Renewed war between France and England killed the project, however. In the 1880’s, private companies actually began work on a tunnel using primitive boring machines. More than a mile of tunnel was dug on each side of the Channel before work stopped when a press furor over the alleged threat to Britain’s security caused the government to cancel the project in 1883.

French president François Mitterrand and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Paris, France, where they ratified an agreement in 1987 for the construction of the Channel Tunnel connecting Great Britain and mainland Europe.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1966, the French and British governments announced they would plan and build a tunnel under the Channel. Work began in 1974 but stopped the following year. With about a mile and a half of preliminary digging completed on each side of the Channel, the British government had to cancel the publicly financed project because of the cost. In 1978, British Railways and the French National Railways (SNCF) again began planning for a single-track rail tunnel. This later changed to a twin-tunnel plan.

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Eventually, improvements in tunneling technology gave impetus to new Channel Tunnel plans. The primary barriers to such a project were now financial rather than technological or political. A new dimension entered the picture when banking studies showed that private financing was feasible.

The plan for a permanent cross-channel link was relaunched at a summit meeting between British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president François Mitterrand in September, 1981. This led to a study commission, which selected four plans for further consideration in 1985: a high suspension bridge, a bridge-tunnel road plus a railway tunnel, railway-road tunnels, and railway tunnels.

In January of 1986, a proposal by Eurotunnel Eurotunnel Group (a combination of France Manche and the Channel Tunnel Group), based in London, was announced as the choice of both governments. The option chosen was a railroad system that included railroad trains and special rail shuttle trains (Le Shuttle) carrying road vehicles. Development of the project was agreed upon when Thatcher and Mitterrand signed the Franco-British Treaty of Canterbury Franco-British Treaty of Canterbury (1986)[Francobritish Treaty of Canterbury] in February, 1986. In March of 1986, a fifty-five-year concession was signed between the two governments and what would become the Eurotunnel Group, jointly led by André Bénard and Alastair Morton. The treaty and concession agreement were not effective, however, until legislation was passed in both countries in July, 1987.

The Channel Tunnel was to be privately financed (with stock sales and bank loans from several international banks) by a consortium of French and British firms. The project, which would enable high-speed trains to cut surface travel time between Paris and London in half, was considered to be a good investment.

Construction would be done by TransManche Link TransManche Link[Transmanche Link] (la Manche is what the French call the English Channel), a consortium of five French and five British firms. Preliminary work began near Calais, France, in late 1986, and construction work began on the tunnel itself in December of 1987 with boring on the British side; boring on the French side began two months later. The Channel Tunnel actually comprises three individual tunnels with entrances near the French and English coasts, in Calais and Folkestone, Kent, respectively. Construction shafts were at Shakespeare Cliff near Folkestone and at Sangatte near Calais.

Huge boring machines drilled through the rock at the rate of 800-1,000 meters (about 2,600-3,300 feet) per month. The tunnels were dug beneath the sea in two separate sections, one from each side of the Channel, to link up the terminals. Once bored, the tunnel walls were lined with precast concrete segments reinforced with steel bars, which were joined to each other and the rock wall by a cement grout. The two main tunnels are 7.6 meters (about 25 feet) in diameter, with a railway track in each; these are connected at intervals to a central service tunnel that is 4.8 meters (a little more than 15 feet) in diameter. In all, the tunnels are about 50 kilometers (31 miles) long, 38 kilometers (almost 24 miles) of which is under the Channel.

In December of 1990, the British and French teams achieved breakthrough with the completion of the service tunnel. A worker chosen by lot became the first to walk through the newly opened linkage between bores, where England now joined the Continent. Breakthrough in the northern railway tunnel came in May, 1991, and in the southern railway tunnel in June, 1991. Installation of fixed equipment such as tracks, signals, electrical supply, lighting, and ventilation was carried out in 1992-1993.

While the tunnels were being constructed, equipment had to be built for the four forms of electrified rail service that would use the Channel Tunnel. Le Shuttle service would carry autos, buses, and motorcycles on passenger shuttle trains, with double-deck cars used for autos and single-deck cars for buses and campers. The shuttle journey time would be about thirty-five minutes, but for drivers using Le Shuttle, it would be about an hour highway to highway. Freight shuttles with semiopen cars would carry heavy goods vehicles. The Eurostar service would provide for direct, high-speed passenger trains through French (SNCF), Belgian (SNCB), and British Rail lines. Freight service would be provided as well.

On May 6, 1994, Queen Elizabeth II of England and President Mitterrand of France inaugurated the Channel Tunnel by taking their first rides. The two heads of state also opened terminals for passenger train service using the Channel Tunnel in their countries’ capital cities. This service, utilizing high-speed Eurostar passenger trains, would eventually connect London with Paris, France, and Brussels, Belgium. It did not actually begin regular service until late that year, however, because of the need to test all new high-tech trains thoroughly. Limited service began in May, 1994, as did some freight service.

Significance

Much of the passenger service in the Chunnel in its first year was of the “souvenir excursion” variety. Skeletal Eurostar service began in October, and Le Shuttle opened for cars with limited service in December, 1994, and expanded to twenty-four-hour service in January of 1995. Initially, service was offered only for autos; service for other passenger vehicles was delayed into 1995.

Eurotunnel has had a roller-coaster life since 1986, with times when the Channel Tunnel looked set to sink beyond rescue. Completion was a huge triumph for Eurotunnel and its contractors, with whom a financial deal for cost overruns was struck in April, 1994. The cost was far above estimates, and it would take a major effort to turn this asset into a profitable business. Some believed that the same overoptimism that plagued the Chunnel’s construction phase would continue and that forecasts for long-distance passenger traffic and freight traffic were unrealistic. Others were convinced that the Channel Tunnel was off to an encouraging but delayed start. By the time Eurostar service was officially inaugurated on November 14, 1994, the total Eurotunnel tab was $15.5 billion, almost exactly twice the original estimates.

Fare-paying travelers will ultimately determine whether the privately financed tunnel is an economic success. The Channel Tunnel has had and will continue to have economic, environmental, and political implications for the United Kingdom and Europe. Much of the tunnel’s trade is diverted from other carriers, increasing competition. By its first anniversary in November of 1995, Eurostar had carried 2.5 million passengers between London and Paris, accounting for 40 percent of the total for air and rail.

Although the tunnel continued to operate at a loss in its first decade, the numbers of users increased substantially over that period. In 2004, about 7.3 million passengers traveled on Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel, along with 2.1 million cars and 1.3 millions trucks. Rail freight also increased to about 1.9 million tons. Channel Tunnel English Channel;Channel Tunnel

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fetherston, Drew. The Chunnel: The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel. New York: Times Books, 1997. A journalist covers all aspects of the story of the Channel Tunnel, including financing, engineering, and politics. Includes map, illustrations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gourvish, T. R. The Official History of Britain and the Channel Tunnel. New York: Routledge, 2006. In-depth analysis of the project’s history was commissioned by the British government and draws on government records. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Murray, ed. “The Channel Is Conquered.” Railway Gazette International, supp. (May, 1994). Reviews the operations, marketing, and safety of the tunnel on the eve of its official opening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Cathy. “The Light at the End of the Chunnel.” National Geographic, May, 1994, 36-47. Presents analysis of the effects of the Channel Tunnel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petroski, Henry. “The Channel Tunnel.” American Scientist 82 (September/October, 1994): 408-411. Provides a brief history of the tunnel’s development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reina, Peter. “After 99 Months’ Work Channel Tunnel Prepares for Trains.” Engineering News Record 232 (May 2, 1994): 22-25. Describes the activity just prior to the tunnel’s opening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Travis, Anthony. “Engineering and Politics: The Channel Tunnel in the 1880’s.” Technology and Culture 32 (July, 1991): 461-467. Discusses the history and politics of an earlier attempt to build the tunnel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waller, Peter. From the Footplate: Eurostar—A Driver’s Eye View of the Channel Tunnel. Addlestone, England: Ian Allen, 1996. Provides a detailed look at Eurostar operations through the tunnel. Includes many illustrations.

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