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Tunnel near first linkup

A historic rendezvous is expected this week under the English Channel, when French and British construction crews link up after three years of drilling the world's costliest tunnel. As early as Tuesday, perhaps a few days later, the two teams will drive a probe through the last 100 yards of chalk that separates them.

After tests to verify the alignment of the separate parts of the tunnel, full-scale boring operations will resume. The workers are expected to greet each other with handshakes within a few weeks.

The 31-mile channel tunnel, dubbed the "Chunnel," is scheduled for completion in mid-1993. It actually consists of three tunnels _ two for railway trains and a smaller maintenance tunnel between them. Taking into account all three tunnels, 80 percent of the drilling has been completed. The first linkup, in the service tunnel, is being described by the French as a "mouse hole" _ a bore only 2 inches in diameter.

When the service tunnel is fully connected, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and French President Francois Mitterrand are expected to meet each other in the middle. The linkup of the rail tunnels is set for mid-1991.

The goal of the project is to enable passengers to travel between London and Paris in about three hours. That time is comparable to flying if transport to and from airports is included, and would take half as long as a car-ferry journey.

The cost of the project has soared from about $9.4-billion to $16.7-billion.

The Chunnel's scheduled debut in June 1993 would come six months after the 12-nation European Community drops remaining trade barriers, becoming a unified marketplace of 320-million consumers.

Officials say the tunnel may carry 28-million passengers in the first year of operation, although Eurotunnel doesn't expect a profit until the end of the century.