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Shaft links Britain to continent

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Britain surrendered a bit of its treasured island status Tuesday. Two ends of an undersea tunnel linking Britain with Europe were joined beneath the middle of the English Channel, fulfilling a dream almost two centuries old.

English and French workers made the historic breakthrough, 14 miles from the coastal port of Folkestone, 10 miles from the beaches of the Pas de Calais, and 130 feet below the seabed of the waters that have separated them since England drifted away from the continental land mass.

First direct contact was through a tiny laser-guided probe to make sure the two ends of the "Chunnel" _ or Channel Tunnel _ were correctly aligned.

It was only one small hole for the engineers _ "just large enough to get a whiff of garlic," said one British worker _ but it represented a giant opening for a united Europe.

"This is a hugely historic moment because it means, in effect, that Britain is no longer an island," a construction union official said.

Preliminary tests indicated the two halves were 20 inches out of alignment. Technicians called the line-up "exceptional" given the scope of the project.

The first land passage from France to England will be possible when a small hand-dug access is opened between the two ends of the service tunnel in coming days. The bore hole will be progressively widened to the tunnel's full width in December.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand will shake hands in the middle of the tunnel in January. The tunnel is scheduled for completion in June 1993.

BBC radio reported the breakthrough Tuesday night by saying that many Britons welcomed the tunnel, but others regarded it as a betrayal of Britain's island status. They fear an influx of ills from the continent ranging from terrorism to rabid animals.

The BBC opened its broadcast with a commentary on a World War II air fight over the channel, and the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "Hitler knows he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, Europe will be free."

The broadcast closed with Vera Lynn, the wartime soldier's sweetheart, singing The White Cliffs of Dover and There'll Always Be an England.

The project actually consists of three tunnels _ two for railway trains and a smaller maintenance tunnel between them. The historic linkup came in the central service tunnel.

The basic 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 is half the time of a car-ferry journey.

French mining engineer Albert Mathieu first suggested a tunnel in 1802. Napoleon Bonaparte quickly adopted the idea, but it got the thumbs down in London.

Another start was made in 1881, but it quickly ran out of support and money, particularly after Queen Victoria, who was initially enthusiastic because she suffered from seasickness, decided it was a threat to national security.

Seven times digging started. Seven times it stopped. Not until 1987 was the go-ahead given on both sides of the channel and the green light kept on. Thatcher laid down only one condition: that the project be entirely privately financed.

Raising the $16.7-billion has not been easy for the Anglo-French consortium. Doubts about the project's feasibility have undermined financial confidence, provoking the occasional funding crisis. But just last week the 210 international banks backing Eurotunnel finally agreed to increase their lending from $9.75-billion to $13.26-billion.

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

Officials expect the tunnel to carry 28-million passengers in the first year of operation.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.