Published: April 24, 2016
The Channel Tunnel, linking England and France, was officially opened on this day, nearly 200 years after the idea was first suggested. There were many misgivings, the sea having protected for centuries what Shakespeare described as “this precious stone set in the silver sea . . . this fortress built by Nature for herself against infection and the hand of war”.
But the demands of modern commerce prevailed and the completed tunnel – stretching 31.4 miles under the sea – was hailed as one of the “seven wonders of the modern world" by the American Society of Civil Engineers. They rated it alongside the Empire State Building, the Itaipu Dam in South America, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Panama Canal, the North Sea protection works in the Netherlands, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
It took six years to build at a cost of £4.65 billion – £12 billion ($17 billion) in today’s money. There is no facility for vehicles to be driven through – everything and everybody goes by train. Up to 400 of them pass through the tunnel each day, carrying an average of 50,000 passengers, 6,000 cars, 180 coaches and 54,000 tonnes of freight on the 35-minute journey.
It is a far cry from the proposals in 1802 of French engineer Albert Mathieu, the first person to suggest a tunnel between the two countries. His plans included an artificial island halfway across, so that horses pulling the wagons through could be changed. Later proposals for a tunnel came from Napoleon III in 1856, and the English prime ministers William Gladstone in 1865 and David Lloyd George in 1919.
All would have been astonished by the engineering technology employed in the modern-day project. The average depth of the tunnel is 50 metres below the seabed, and the lowest point 75 metres below. To accomplish the task, 11 boring machines were used, each as long as two football pitches. They weighed a total of 12,000 tonnes, which is more than the Eiffel Tower. One of the machines remains buried under the sea while another, amazingly, was sold on eBay in 2004 for £40,000 ($57,000).
It seems like another wonder of the world was being planned.