Project of the century, record holder and technical marvel – the Channel Tunnel connects continental Europe and Great Britain underneath the English Channel and has proven its efficiency since it opened in 1994. Not only has it carried millions of passengers and dramatically shortened travel times, it has also achieved remarkable things in the area of freight transport. Learn more about this bold construction, previous projects, tunnel boring machines covered in concrete, racing cyclists in the tunnel, as well as parallels to the Ice Age.
It was a truly historic moment when, just over 30 years ago, the long-awaited breakthrough in the Channel Tunnel was achieved. On December 1, 1990, an English tunnel worker broke through the last sections of rock of the tunnel between Great Britain and France. No sooner was the small hole created than he and his French colleague first shook hands and then, just a bit later, ceremonially slid through the space. Success! And since that historic day, the Channel Tunnel ranks as one of the longest tunnels in the world, at just under 51 km. At the same time, with a stretch of 37 km under the Strait of Dover, it holds the record for the longest underwater passage. The public rejoiced following this achievement. The new transport link was celebrated as a great symbol, and the American Society of Civil Engineers even named the tunnel one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World.
The tunnel, also known by many as the “Eurotunnel,” connects Folkestone in the English county of Kent to the French town of Coquelles near Calais by rail. Of course, high-speed trains run with direct connections between major cities on both sides of the Channel, but freight is also transported below the Channel.
The long planned and extremely costly infrastructure project was completed in 1994 and marks a technical masterpiece that is still impressive today. The Channel Tunnel consists of two single-track driving tunnels and a narrow service tunnel in between. Construction of the tunnel employed 15,000 workers over seven years, using a total of eleven large tunnel boring machines. The British-French consortium pushed ahead with excavations at the same time from both sides. The larger railway tubes each have a diameter of 7.6 m, while the service tunnel in between measures 4.8 m in diameter. At its deepest point, this modern wonder of the world reaches a depth of 75 m below the seabed and, surprisingly, the shortest route between the coasts (35 km) was actually not the one they chose to take.
The excavated chalk and shale rock gave rise to a natural reserve covering more than 30 hectares, after the excavated material was deliberately dumped into the sea. However, it is not only the technical key figures that are astronomical. The project also ended up costing 15 billion euros, considerably more than originally anticipated.
With a length of 37 km under the sea, this construction is considered to be the longest underwater tunnel in the world. Of course, great attention was paid to safety. In the event of a fire, for example, the rescue concept calls for passengers to be brought to the surface within 90 minutes. For this purpose, a “rescue train” is able to pass through via the second tube. The service tunnel, in turn, is operated with positive pressure and would remain smoke-free in the event of an emergency. It serves as access to the travel tunnels for maintenance and rescue vehicles and also contains the important water supply for firefighting. Earlier plans to build an artificial island complete with an emergency exit on a suitable sandbank in the English Channel were later abandoned. Fortunately, some incidents in the past proved that emergency response plans do work.
When you look out from the White Cliffs of Dover to France on a clear day, the French coast seems close enough to touch. No wonder that people have been thinking about an underground crossing of the English Channel for more than 250 years. The first mention of a relevant plan can be traced back to 1751. In a French dissertation, an initial idea was raised, but it was not until 1802 that a concrete plan followed, including transportation by carriage. The Varne Bank in the middle of the sea was to be filled in to form an artificial island with a horse changing station for this purpose. Air exchange was to be provided by chimneys that rose a few meters above the water surface. The plan was technically impossible – as were many others thereafter – and besides, the Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe, with France and England becoming enemies.
Ongoing plans and considerations proved time and again to be technically unfeasible, not fully developed, or simply too bizarre: for example, in 1834, they considered building a stilt-shaped transportation system, with the rails running on the seabed, and the just-invented railroads remaining above sea level. In addition to technical shortcomings regarding the designs, there was often a lack of political will, especially on the British side. Although both Queen Victoria (who suffered from seasickness) and a young Winston Churchill (whose father had a completely opposing view) advocated it, people in London still remained skeptical. There were fears that invaders would sneak in under the English Channel, or that natural pests such as rodents and associated diseases would spread to the island. Here people went so far as to speak of an “English virginity.” The last great hysteria occurred during World War II when a Royal Navy officer calculated that Hitler could accomplish a potential tunneling in 18 months with the help of forced laborers.
After World War II and the successful and peaceful European reconstruction, the British Ministry of Defense declared in 1955 that there would be no more objections from a military point of view. As early as 1957, a joint venture was formed, and extensive planning and geological test drilling took place. In 1973, Britain and France came to an understanding and drew up an agreement, but in 1975 the plans were called off because of the oil crisis. In 1986, the final decision was made to move to a rail-only solution, and in 1987, agreement was reached on a common defense in the event of a conflict, as well as on details in the event of tensions among the two countries.
Better late than never, construction work finally began on December 15, 1987. From that day on, things moved very quickly. On December 1, 1990, the breakthrough was made at the bottom of the canal – 15.6 km from France, 22.3 km from Great Britain. By using lasers, the tubes met with a minimal deviation of only 35 cm horizontally and 6 cm vertically. This is an incredible value, considering a maximum tolerance of 2.5 m was calculated into the planning. Even in comparison to major modern projects such as the “Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge” in China, this bold project still remains impressive!
Thanks to the tunnel hole-through, it was now possible to walk from continental Europe to Great Britain for the first time since the end of the last Ice Age over 13,000 years ago. In the summer of 1993, the first test train passed through the tunnel, followed a year later by the first freight train. Shortly after this feat, the train service with passengers was also put into motion. According to tunnel operator Getlink, an estimated 450 million people and 90 million vehicles of various types have been transported since the tunnel’s opening.
The Channel Tunnel reduced the travel time to France from one and a half hours to just 35 minutes compared to the ferry. Nevertheless, despite steady growth, traffic volumes remained below expectations from the outset, plunging the operating company into perpetual economic turmoil. The current coronavirus crisis as well as the strict British quarantine regulations have recently caused passenger numbers to plummet by a shocking 95 percent, and on the newer routes – to Brussels and Paris – only one train a day was running at the last count after the 2020 lockdowns. At present, the operators say they are fighting for survival and gambling for government support.
But the Channel Tunnel delivers decent figures for more than just passenger services. Some 430 million tons of goods have been transported since it opened in 1994, and at last count about one million express e-commerce deliveries passed through the tunnel every day. Coronavirus lockdowns as well as changing consumer behavior will definitely keep the volume of small packages and envelopes large.
In 2018, almost 2,100 freight trains used the Channel Tunnel, and in 2019, as many as 1.6 million trucks passed through the tunnel. At peak times, up to 3,500 trucks were recorded daily – in both directions!
Logistically, truck traffic across the narrowest part of the English Channel is the UK's most important supply link, with around 20% of traded goods passing through it, according to government figures. And 40% of them cross the English Channel via the tunnel. These figures are of course impressive, yet they do not hide the fact that there is still potential for more. For one thing, the tunnel crossing costs more than the longer ferry option. On the other hand, the reason why a ferry crossing remains an attractive alternative among truck drivers is very simple: on the ship they can leave their vehicles and take a slightly longer break.
This has nothing to do with the comfort on the tunnel shuttle, because as soon as you park your truck on one of the 16 wagons, you are taken by bus to the “Club Car” in front of the train. This offers free Wi-Fi, restrooms and vending machines with drinks and snacks. As you can see, the crossing in the Channel Tunnel is not only exciting and a time saver, it is also very relaxing...
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