As Le Shuttle whisks me across to France this morning, I am reminded that this month marks the 20th anniversary of the Channel tunnel. Yet the first plans for a tunnel between England and France were actually drawn up over 200 years ago.
Safety and security fears, however, have meant that the construction of a tunnel has proved anything but straightforward.
As far back as 1802, French mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier put forward designs for a tunnel. However, cars and trains hadn’t been invented back then, so his tunnel would have been lit by oil lamps and used by horse-drawn stagecoaches. Oil lamps, animals, a closed environment… you can understand why this idea went no further.
However, by 1830, the advent of trains heralded a rethink – and plans for a rail tunnel.
Further proposals were put together over the remainder of the century until the project was formally abandoned in 1882 as a result of political and media pressure. A tunnel would compromise Britain’s defences, it was argued.
It took until 1955 for the British government to drop its opposition to a fixed link.
Later, in 1973 – the year that the UK joined the European Economic Community – British prime minister Ted Heath and French president Georges Pompidou signed a Channel Tunnel treaty. Construction work began the following year but the cash-strapped British government abandoned the project less than 12 months later.
In 1986, the two governments resurrected the idea and invited proposals. Of the various options presented, public fears about safety, ventilation and accident management meant that the tunnel we know today was the one to be given the go ahead.
It is, in fact, three tunnels: one outbound and one inbound rail tunnel, plus a service tunnel in the middle.
Finally, it opened in May 1994.
Now, 20 years on, more than 20 million passengers use the Channel tunnel each year – over ten million each by Eurostar and Le Shuttle. We have, it seems, overcome our fears.