PARIS – Twenty years ago, Queen Elizabeth II and President Francois Mitterrand braved the drizzle to cut the inaugural ribbon of the Channel Tunnel, realizing a centuries-old dream of linking Britain and France under the sea.
A prodigious industrial adventure, the “Chunnel” project mobilized 12,000 engineers, technicians and workers to create the world’s longest underwater tunnel over nearly 38 kilometers (24 miles) from northern France to southern England. The International Federation of Consulting Engineers gave it the “Global Engineering of the Century Award.”
But this tour de force, officially inaugurated by the queen and Mitterrand on May 6, 1994, was overshadowed for years by financial problems that almost tore apart Eurotunnel, the company contracted to manage and operate the tunnel until 2086.
In 2013, Eurotunnel — which employs some 3,700 people — made a net profit of €101 million ($140 million), prompting chief executive Jacques Gounon to say, “For the first time in the history of Eurotunnel, we think that the situation of the group is altogether satisfactory.”
The idea to end Britain’s isolation as an island and dig a tunnel to France emerged as early as the 18th century. The project was first launched in the 1970s but was soon abandoned. Then in January 1986, Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially signed an agreement to kick-start construction. Thatcher faced considerable opposition to the project within her Conservative Party, but she pushed it through and famously insisted that “not a public penny” would be used.
As such, the contract to conceive, make and put into service the tunnel was awarded to a consortium of 10 British and French construction companies.
Construction lasted six years, cost €15 billion and saw workers dig three tunnels — one for each direction and one in the middle for service work. Vehicles can only cross on board a rail shuttle due to the difficulty of ventilation.
The huge, 1,000-ton tunnel boring machines that dug through the ground got off to a slow start on the French side due to difficult terrain and were slowed by water infiltrations on the British side. But finally, in a historic moment, a British and French worker shook hands in December 1990 in the service tunnel, some 100 meters under the channel.
The tunnel opened in 1994. Six months later, the first Eurostar passenger train raced through.
After initial disappointing traffic, the number of people using the tunnel increasingly grew, and some 330 million passengers have made the trip since 1994.
The tunnel, which carries passengers and freight traffic in separate services, has now become a formidable competitor to maritime ferry services and airlines on the Paris-to-London route.