by Phil Marsh

Channel Tunnel hits 20 after a 214 year history

Published: 5th May 2014

Access charges to be reduced through Channel Tunnel after threat of EU legal action

The Channel Tunnel, known as Eurotunnel has been open commercially for 20years. But it is not really that new as building a channel crossing was considered since Napoleon’s time when a French engineer called Mathieu designed a ‘double-decker’ tunnel in 1800. The upper one was to be used by horse drawn vehicles and lit by oil lamps while the tunnel underneath was to be used for drainage.

The French Emperor was in favour of the project but the technology and war fears prevented the construction. This was despite tunnels being built for canals and early horse drawn railways at that time but of course these were not 25 miles long, as required for the English Channel.

Brunel is thought to have built the first underwater tunnel which was under the Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe which opened in 1842. The master builder had invented the method and design for such a tunnel but the ventilation problem remained. This was important to consider as trains were all steam hauled at this time and how to keep the air breathable in a 25 mile tunnel remained unresolved.

Horse drawn trains under the sea

One proposal was that trains would be horse drawn with steam engines used at either end of the tunnel as normal. Lateral thinking brought the idea of a train ferry in 1870 which predated the actual introduction of such a ferry by 35 years. But, a design was made in 1910 for a submarine running along rails laid on the seabed pulled by chains on giant winches. This was not followed up but Eurostar followed 84 years later though!

An Act of Parliament in 1875 authorised the Channel Tunnel Company Ltd to start tunnelling trials and simultaneously in France, test bores were carried out at Sangatte in 1877. In 1890, similar trial excavations were undertaken in Abbots Cliff near Dover with a pilot tunnel planned to be completed by 1886.

This initial test tunnelling used compressed air to power drills using machines designed by Colonel Beaumont who was an MP. It was claimed that this was three times quicker than using explosives and manual labour (and presumably a lot safer!

Boring undersea work

A powerful tunnel boring machine was constructed by Captain English in 1880 which dug out half a mile of tunnel every month. Despite these technological advances, work on the pilot tunnel was stopped when it was a mile and a half long, 100 feet below the sea bed.

Work was ordered to cease after intervention in 1883 by a military commission led by Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley. The commission decided a tunnel could be calamitous for England leaving it open to invasion via the tunnel and this opinion brought a Government ban on any undersea tunnelling which lasted until 1955. This was when it was realised air warfare rendered the ban useless.

Tunnel Electrification

Electric trains started running on London’s Underground from 1900 closely followed by long tunnels under The Alps which at a stroke solved the ventilation problem. Following these developments, a construction fundraising frenzy started with British and French companies formed to raise the funds but in 1914, the outbreak of war stopped this.

After the war, an Anglo-French commission was established in 1929 to look at what solution would be best to cross the Channel. Tunnel, ferry and bridge options were examined and a bridge with more than fifty 2000 feet long spans was proposed. This would allow four lines and was costed at £75million but the plan failed with the risk of ships colliding in the fog with the spans said to be too great.

Eventually a tunnel system costing about £31million was agreed and this would have seen two separate tunnels with a centre pilot tunnel built. But the military worries of The Government prevented construction going ahead. It would have used a rotary boring machine, similar to those used in the Crossrail project today.

Post war postulations

After the second War, the English and French Governments opened discussions about how to cross the channel which after decades of talking, brought a 1971 plan to build a twin tunnel and centre service tunnel. This was to have been linked to London by rail and the route was uncannily similar to today’s HS1. What was different was the 1986 train design which proposed a double deck passenger and car shuttle service.

This project was launched by Prime Minister Heath and President Pompidou in 1973 but abandoned in 1973 as the fuel crisis hit. The two Governments tried again and in 1984 they agreed that they would ask the private sector to put forward plans for a fixed link between the countries.

Breakthrough – but at what cost?

Again, bridges, tunnels and a combination of the two were made and in 1986, Prime Minister Thatcher and President Mitterand announced that the Eurotunnel proposal, based on the 1970s scheme. After the legalities had been completed, on July 29, 1987, the Treaty of Canterbury was signed by the politicians and tunnel construction commenced.

The tunnel was bored from both sides of the Channel by Trans Manche Link and their two teams joined up the service tunnel on December 1, 1990 14 miles from England and 10 miles from France. The actual railway tunnels broke through in May and June 1991 and TML handed the tunnel over to Eurotunnel to be fitted out in December 1993.

The tunnel was named The Chunnel and it was 31 miles long and formally opened by The Queen and President Mitterand in May 1994 and was built about 150 feet below the seabed. The inaugural international freight train operated in June 1994 and Eurostar passenger services commenced in November 1994. These were a very limited service called Discovery’ services and ran between Waterloo International, Paris and Brussels.

The cost was estimated to be £5billion but the scheme actually cost nearer £10 billion which led to a refinancing of the project and Eurotunnel whose shareholders lost a lot of money. This meant earnings could not support the huge debt and after a bitter argument, the new deal was done in 1998 followed by a second bout of financial worries in 2005 following near bankruptcy.

Worst fears

There have been two fires in the Channel Tunnel, the first in November 1996 when it closed for a few weeks and a similar fire occurred in September 2008.

Guaranteed payments

The tunnel was subject to a guaranteed Minimum Usage Agreement which paid Eurotunnel a guaranteed payment irrespective of how many passengers or freight tons were transited through it. This deal has been subject to annoyance by tunnel users but now, Eurotunnel has announced that its access charges will be reduced from June by 50%.

The company hopes that usage will help to double traffic through the tunnel to 5000 trains a year from 2018. Eurotunnel operates its own shuttle trains carrying vehicles and lorries and these services are excluded from the new financial arrangements.

These changes were prompted by the European Commission starting a an infringement procedure in June last year investigating whether France and Britain had not implemented European Union rules concerning track access in the Channel Tunnel. On the French side, French Rail company, RFF, levies a £500 security fee on every train going to the UK which will no longer be charged.

Various rebates will be extended to more trains while other charges will be reduced or not charged to The EU has now stopped infringement action and says that the average one-way access charge of approximately €4500 per freight train was ‘a major reason’ why there is 43% unused capacity in the tunnel. Less than 10 such trains run every day when it was envisaged that between 30 or 40 would have operated 20 years ago

They said;

‘I welcome Eurotunnel's announcement because it should pave the way for more freight to use the Channel Tunnel and at lower prices’, said EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas. ‘It stands to unblock a major bottleneck in Europe's transport network. This is good news for Europe's businesses that rely on effective and competitively priced transport services and good news for consumers they serve. It is also good news for the environment, as rail is the most energy efficient way of transporting goods.’

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