The Channel Tunnel is receiving a lot of coverage at the moment, mostly for not very good reasons. However, I recently watched a more enjoyable documentary on the construction of the tunnel and learnt a lot of surprising things…
In 1981, François Mitterand was elected President of France, while Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister of Britain for two years. They were political opposites.
Nevertheless, both governments wanted to show themselves capable of undertaking grand projects and the two leaders were united in approving the construction of a tunnel that would connect Britain and France, on one condition – the project was to be entirely financed by private funds.
Four potential projects were examined. The first, Europont, was a bridge over the Channel supported by pylons as high as the Eiffel Tower. At a cost of 10 billion euros, the Europont was the most expensive proposal and, with the bridge being exposed to the elements, the risk of accidents was deemed too high.
The second project, Transmanche Express, proposed 4 tunnels under the Channel: two for road traffic and two for trains. Given that this would mean allowing people to drive through the tunnel themselves, it was decided that the risk of fatigue and panic was too high.
The third project, Euroroute, was the most spectacular: a combination of bridges and tunnels linking 2 manmade islands, the latter being complete with duty free. This was Mitterand’s personal favourite. However, the chosen project was not Euroroute, but Eurotunnel: three 50km tunnels (two for trains, one for maintenance) under the Channel, including two crossovers as big as cathedrals to allow trains to change tracks in case of works or accidents.
Mitterand was so unimpressed by the selection of Eurotunnel over Euroroute that he almost didn’t sign the contract. However, on January 20 1986 at the Hôtel de Ville in Lille, he made the official announcement alongside Thatcher.
It was decided that the tunnel would run between Coquelles in France and Folkestone in the UK. The project was somewhat of a blessing for the former, as it created around 5000 jobs in a region suffering from unemployment.
The concrete, or ‘armour’, used for the tunnel walls is more resistant than that used for nuclear power stations. A million tonnes of it were used, which is three times more than the amount used to construct the Empire State Building.
Of course, no joint venture between the British and the French would be complete without a bit of rivalry. Once construction had begun, it soon became a contest between British and French tunnellers, with the two teams competing to see who would reach the meeting point first. It turned out to be the British, though they were tunnelling through easier terrain.
Nor did they enjoy certain luxuries afforded to the French. British workers could neither drink nor smoke but were, of course, allowed tea. French workers, on the other hand, were allowed 25cl of wine per day and smoking was practically obligatory.
The inauguration of the Eurotunnel was originally due to take place in 1993, but was put back a year. So it wasn’t until May 6 1994 that the tunnel was opened, the first passengers being Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterand. I’ve travelled through the tunnel many times now but the next time I do, I’ll know a great deal more about the work and engineering skill that made it possible.