The Channel tunnel is 25 years old. On May 6th, 1994, a year later than planned, Queen Elizabeth II and French president, François Mitterrand, met on trains that stopped nose to nose in the tunnel, and then officially opened the tunnel in a Calais ceremony. It was the culmination of an ancient dream for a land link between the UK and the Continent.
In 1802, Albert Mathieu-Favier, a French mining engineer, proposed to tunnel under the English Channel, illuminated by oil lamps, with traffic drawn by horse-drawn coaches, and an artificial island positioned mid-Channel for changing horses. Early proposals were rejected because of security fears that first Napoleon, then later Hitler, would use it to invade Britain.
It’s a rail tunnel of 31.35 miles linking Folkestone and Calais. At its lowest point, it is 250 ft deep below the sea bed and 380 ft below sea level. Construction began in 1988 and went 80 percent over its budget at £9bn. It takes freight and passengers, plus the occasional illegal immigrant.
It is a symbol of globalization. In January 2017, for example, the first goods train arrived through it from China, after crossing seven countries in 18 days and travelling 7,500 miles to deliver 34 containers of clothes and goods. It is also a symbol of the movement of peoples; we travel more than we did. The tunnel carries over 20m passengers a year.
The Channel Tunnel is but one of a series of fixed links built to facilitate and shorten travel times. The Øresund Bridge, completed in 1999, connects Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmo in Sweden. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, finished in 2018, connects Hong Kong to Macau. Both save long drives or ferry crossings. The Amur Bridge joining China to Russia is due for completion next year,
Many more ambitious ones are planned, including one that will connect Japan with the Asian mainland. The granddaddy of them all, if it is ever built, will be the one that connects Russia and America via the two Diomede islands in the Bering Strait. There is a Chinese plan for a fixed link between China and the USA via Russia and using 200km of tunnels,
As with many of these ambitious ideas, the problem is not so much the technology as the funding. Engineers can solve the problems of drilling and spanning, but government ministers have first to determine how they might be financed, since like most big projects they will probably overrun on both time and cost. The dream of travelling from London to the US by train is a long way from becoming reality, but the opening of the Channel Tunnel 25 years ago was a significant first step along the way.