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Author reconstructs intriguing history of the Chunnel

THE CHUNNEL: The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel

By Drew Fetherston

(Times Books, $35)

Reviewed by TERESA McUSIC

I just received some holiday catalogs in the mail, so it must not be too early to start thinking about December.

For the engineer, financier or history-lover in your life, consider a fascinating account of a project as immense in scope as the Panama Canal and the pyramids: the English Channel tunnel.

The Chunnel: The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel is due out in November from journalist Drew Fetherston. Fetherston, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and New York Newsday, has an academic background in physics and geology. The combination helps to produce a highly readable, entertaining look at a complex engineering feat.

The Chunnel opens with a riveting account of the final moments before England and France were joined by land for the first time in more than 8,000 years.

Suspense builds as readers wait to find out whether the massive tunnel-boring machine from France, affectionately called "Brigitte" by workers, will link with its counterpart that started in England.

Because the bulky TBMs cannot be turned around when they meet, one is sent off course to be buried in concrete while the other continues forward into the rest of the tunnel, Fetherston writes. A drill probe ahead of the British TBM cut a passage on the British side to determine whether Brigitte was on course.

"The moment captured the breadth of this project nicely: Here was this steel monster, 650 tons stretched over the length of two football fields, sucking in huge drafts of electric power, shaking the earth with its labors, groping for _ a pinpoint," Fetherston writes.

At stake was much more than the 600 French and English engineers' reputations. More than 200 banks had provided between 5-billion and 6-billion pounds sterling for the tunnel, privately built at the insistence of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The Chunnel project also raised more than $700-million from individual shareholders.

Failure, Fetherston notes, would have reflected badly on the governments of both countries.

After three years of tunneling, the two segments were connected Oct. 30, 1990.

Three years later, the Chunnel opened. The entire project comprises 12 tunnels forming three continuous tubes around 49 kilometers long from Folkestone, England, to Coquelles, France.

Last year, before a devastating fire that hurt the Chunnel's reputation more than its infrastructure, the English tunnel dominated the cross-Channel market, Fetherston writes.

The Eurostar service was carrying more than 60 percent of the passenger traffic between London and Paris. The shuttles carried half of the Dover-Calais automobile traffic and 47 percent of the freight.

But despite its market dominance over ferries and air traffic between the two countries, the Chunnel is far from profitable. Because of cost overruns and mismanagement, Eurotunnel's losses in 1995 mounted to a staggering $1.48-billion and its debt stood at almost $13-billion.

The banks, unable to write off such large sums, accepted shares of stock instead of cash for repayment, Fetherston writes. Analysts estimate that decades will pass before the Chunnel breaks even.

The mammoth project, complete with numerous fascinating construction photos, makes for quite a book. Fetherston does an excellent job of showcasing the many personalities involved in an epic and historic feat.

Teresa McUsic reviews business books for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.