Channel Tunnel out of the depths 20 years on

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Channel Tunnel out of the depths 20 years on

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Twenty years ago today they cut the ribbon inaugurating the Channel Tunnel, a dream of two centuries, President François Mitterrand and Queen Elizabeth II, on 6 May 1994. Now the rail link between the United Kingdom and France is the busiest in the world, with up to 400 trains using it per day, a real achievement trophy of civil engineering.

It was an exploit nearly 38 km long, with 75 metres of sea water above it at its deepest point, and track at either end stretching the Eurotunnel out to more than 50 km; employing 13,000 engineers, technicians and skilled workers.

The digging had begun at the English end in 1987 and 1988 on the French. Eleven giant machines generally bored through some 76 metres of earth per day, spoil largely a marine deposit made up of small fossils and with a high clay content. The two teams made their historic junction on 1 December, 1999.

The continental connection is three tunnels, actually, one-way in each direction and a narrower middle one for road service and access to technical equipment such as ventilation.

Trucks, cars and motorcycles are transported by rail carriages. A fleet of 25 shuttle trains are used, which are maintained in rotation every month and a half, when they’ve run 30,000 km. Upkeep and safety inspections are the key to ensuring a smooth operation.

The tunnelling was also a financial adventure, which almost ended badly. It needed deep pockets: It was to be completely privately funded, with hundreds of thousands of shareholders. They’d bought in in 1987. Fourteen years later they were practically ploughed under by the company’s debts.

They were in for the long haul, however — had to be. Eurotunnel’s first profit-making year was 2007, and it paid out first dividends in 2009. The original projection for that had been 1997.

Eurotunnel celebrated its 300 millionth passenger in October 2012, the London Olympic year.