The Channel Tunnel, 200 Years In The Making

Here’s the first in a series of shameless SEO enhancing blog posts, so you’ll know just how fantastic some of these trains and railways you’ll be travelling on really are. Our first and last train doesn’t really need any introducing, but it’s probably the easiest to cobble together a meaningful post about.

A Short History of How The Channel Tunnel Never Got Built, Until Recently

Albert Matheiu in 1802 appears to be the first to put a serious proposal forward, which would use horse drawn carriages. A combination of the mutual hatred between the peoples on either side of proposed construction, and the utter absurdity of the idea of taking a hackney carriage 30 miles down a damp, dark tunnel, meant it didn’t get beyond this sketch.

In the 1830s Aimé Thomé de Gamond started digging about, he even went deep sea diving in the middle of The Channel as part of his investigations. But it took him till 1857 to gain acceptance for his proposal of building from Cap Griz Nez, which is halfway between Calias and Boulogne and is the closest point to England from the mainland, to Dover. He planned to have a ventilation shaft on the Varne sand bank, which is a lesser known sister of the Goodwin Sands. The Varne was also part of Mattheiu’s plans, and was even considered as part of a 20th century proposal to build a channel bridge.

By the 1860s even the English engineers were coming round to the idea of ending Britain’s 10,000 years of isolation from the European mainland. John Hawkshaw, a man who in de Lessep’s words at the opening ceremony  had saved the Suez Canal project through his favourable report on the project,  made a proposal for a tunnel. At this stage it’s worth pointing out that it had recently taken 18 years for Marc Brunel, Isambard’s dad of course, to build a tunnel under the Thames, and was still the longest tunnel under water in the world at that time (actually it seems to be the only tunnel under water anywhere in 1860) . So while people do moan on about how long it took to get around to build the Chunnel, quite frankly it was way beyond the capabilities of even the most able of the Victorian era’s many outstanding engineers.

By 1876 we even had an Anglo-French accord on the subject, and the establishment of the Submarine Continental Railway Company. By 1877 the French had sunk a series of shafts at Sangatte, which is almost in Calais itself  and is the point at which the completed tunnel of today emerges onto French soil. It is also of course now famously the site of a refugee camp conveniently positioned by the French to give their burgeoning population of Romanian gypsies every possible chance of getting off the mainland.

The first ever digging on the English side was in St Margaret’s Bay, a mile east of Dover, but was abandoned due to flooding. A year later several shafts were dug out by Welsh miners at Abbot’s Cliff between Dover and Folkstone. In 1881 a second tunnel was started at Shakespeare Cliff just west of Dover, which 100 years later is actually the point at which the Chunnel starts to the cross the channel itself. Indeed the EuroTunnel engineers encountered it upon crossing the coast as they began to drill under the sea.

By 1882 though the entire project had been cancelled as the English Press were claiming we’d be invaded by French Revolutionaries. Field Marshall General Sir Garnet Wolseley, KP, GCB, OM, GCMG, VD, PC,  was convinced that those sneaky Frenchies would be able to form a bridgehead at the northern end of the tunnel and that England would be in peril. Engineers did try to explain that we’d just be able to drown the bastards, but one look at the fortifications we were building in the later half of the 19th century along the Kent coast and you’ll understand how paranoid we all were about the whole concept of European Union (how things change).

Did the English really think that Napoleon was going to invade using a fleet of balloons ?

Anglo-French relations actually improved over the next 30 years as Germany became increasingly and obviously the principal rival to the British, and undeniably a mortal threat to France after the drubbing they received in the Franco-Prussian war. Most of Britain’s rail infrastructure was up and running before the 1870s, while continental Europe was still putting much of theirs together. One late comer to the British network was The Great Central Railway. It was the last mainline to be built in Britain until “High Speed 1” opened in 2003 (which was of course built for the Eurostar and which we will naturally be travelling on). The Great Central was completed for passenger traffic in 1899. It ran from Sheffield “down” to Marylebone Station in London. Railways normally run “up” to London, but it’s Mancunian chairman, Sir Edward Watkin, had different ideas on where the centre of his Railway should be denoted. It is the only mainline in Britain, other than HS1, to be built to continental dimensions and loading gauge. Watkin was also on the board of Chemin de Fer du Nord, one of the original French railway companies whose network ran from Paris to the sea, and he clearly intended to see continental high speed traffic running straight from France to the north of England.  Alas, almost the whole of this magnificent line was abandoned with the Beeching cuts of the mid 60s and much of it has now been used for landfill or has been built upon. Considering the billions that the country is now intending to spend on HS2, the high speed link from London to the North of Britain, this was perhaps the most insane act of wilful self harm this country has ever inflicted on it’s railways, although there are many other contenders for that dubious honour.

Watkin never managed to gain much steam for the construction of a Channel Tunnel before his death just 2 years after the Great Central opened. And nothing more was  proposed until after the First War. Lloyd George was keen to get a tunnel built as part of his desire to show the French that we’d do it all again if need be. This time the French seemed less interested in having us over again quite so soon.

In the late 20s another proposal was put forward, and more experimental bores were made, but this time the thought of “hordes of continental tourists” shelved the idea yet again. While it’s arguable that it would have been technically feasible by then, and would perhaps have enabled the British Expeditionary Force to do a runner even more effectively than they managed from the beaches of Dunkirk, it would surely have been flooded immediately afterwards.

By the 50s, the prospect that the French, or anyone else for that matter, would want to invade Britain by train had become so preposterous that we finally got around to performing a full geological survey conducted by Halcrow and Partners. There’s a rather splendid film about it from the 60’s here. It’s the kind of thing BBC2 used to show during daytime test transmissions in the 70s.

The original 1957 company, which is the first genuine ancestor of EuroTunnel,  was actually a joint venture between The British and French Channel Tunnel Companies and the Suez Canal Company.

By 1974 we’d even started building, but then, to the dismay of our Gallic brethren, Labour won the general election that year and, with the EEC membership that Ted Heath had managed to pull off now under serious threat, Wilson’s Government cancelled the whole project.

So it was left to Margaret Hilda Thatcher, hardly the most committed Europhile in English history, to join hands with François Mitterrand and, without offering any noticeable cash to the project, agreed to let private enterprise have another go at building a fixed link to the continent. The British, by then having seemingly abandoned the railways as a desirable method of travel, were more interested in building either a road bridge, or, even more stupidly, a road tunnel. Fortunately for everyone,  the risk analysis of a road tunnel, and the engineering challenges of building a bridge, left the only viable option as a high speed rail link.

The rest, as they say, is history.

A British miner, clearly fearful of being overcome by garlic fumes

A few facts

  • At 31.4 miles long, it is the 2nd longest rail or road tunnel in the world, after the Selkan in Japan (33.4). The Gotthard Base Tunnel, due to open in 2016, will take 1st prize at 35.4 miles. The longest tunnel of any description is some water tunnel in China.
  • But the Chunnel possesses the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world, and that’s not due to change any time soon.
  • There have been 3 fires in it so far, but no deaths. Considering one of these fires hit 1000° C, we can consider it to be a lucky tunnel to date. 10 people, 8 British and 2 French, died during it’s construction. As these things go, that’s well below par for the course.
  • It cost about £12 billion, depending on who you ask, to build by the time it opened in 1994. Perhaps predictably, it’s taking a lot longer to recoup this investment than the usually overoptimistic initial estimates.


Wiki – Channel Tunnel –

The Other Side –

Subterannea Brittanica –

Water Encyclopedia –

Channel Tunnel dot Org –

Halcrow Partners –

Survival of the Unfittest, Why The Worst Infrastructure Gets Built


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