William Shakespeare’s Richard II defined it as the “moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands” and, in fact, for England, the Channel has served as a defensive barrier against repeated attempts to invade its shores, whether it has been by the Spanish Armada, France’s Napoleon or military forces from Nazi Germany.
It is a strip of sea that runs for 560 kilometres. At its narrowest point, the channel separates Dover from Calais on the French shore by 34 kilometres. But the distance between these two ports has shortened since the Channel Tunnel opened 23 years ago. Indicative of the peaceful relations that the United Kingdom has enjoyed with the European continent since the end of the wars of the last century, this strategic piece of infrastructure has proven to be an economic boon for the country. In 2014 alone, it served 21 million passengers.
The first project of an underwater tunnel between England and France
The first projects to propose a link between England and France under the channel appeared in 1750, but work on at least one of them was only to begin in 1880. Digging on both sides reached 1,800 metres before being suspended for lack of funds.
Other attempts went nowhere. Then in 1957 French engineer Louis Armand founded the Channel Tunnel Study Group, which would eventually propose two railway tunnels and a service tunnel. Although work on the project was abandoned in 1975 after a mere 250 metres having been dug, it would nevertheless mark the starting point for a final effort supported by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985. This time, the work, begun two years later, was assumed by a private binational consortium. From an initial budget of £3 billion, it would end up costing £10 billion.
Construction and costs of the Channel Tunnel
Two teams of 4,000 workers took on the task of digging under the channel. On the English shore, one team began at Cheriton, a small town near Folkestone in Kent. The other started at Coquelles near Calais, France. They used 12 tunnel boring machines. The fastest ones drilled 75 metres and 36,000 tonnes of rock a day. The walls of the tunnels were eventually fitted with 750,000 cement and granite slabs, enough for more than 100 buildings. The workforce totalled 13,000 until December 1, 1990, when the two teams finally met under the channel, uniting their respective tunnels.
At the inauguration, the consortium presented to the world a passage under the channel with three parallel tunnels: two for trains and one for motor vehicles.
It was a work described by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world.
The Inauguration of the Channel Tunnel in 1994
Inaugurated on May 6, 1994, by Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand, the Tunnel is also seen continuing to play an important role regardless of the outcome of talks between the UK and the European Union on their future relationship. Its importance was highlighted by a study published in late 2016 by consulting firm Ernst & Young that looked at the impact that it has had on the country’s economy. In 2014, for instance, the total value of trade passing through the tunnel was £91.4 billion, equivalent to 25% of the UK’s trade with the EU. The total value of UK exports that passed through the tunnel was £43.6 billion, or 30% of the value of the country’s exports to the EU. These exports, in turn, supported 220,000 jobs in the UK.
The UK tourism industry has also benefitted from the tunnel. Tourists visiting the country via the tunnel spent £1.7 billion, supporting 18,000 jobs, according to the study.
«The Tunnel remains vital to the UK to connect it to Europe and will continue to form a key part of the UK’s infrastructure,» Jacques Gounon, chief executive of the Eurotunnel Group, the private company that manages the tunnel, is quoted as saying in the study. «The Tunnel not only serves companies in London and the South East but right the way through the Midlands, the North and beyond.»
The region responsible for the largest share of UK exports to the EU that uses the Tunnel is the West Midlands at 20% of their total value. The East of England follows with 18%, then the East Midlands at 14% and London at 12%. Both Wales makes up 7% and Scotland 5%.
By value, postal and courier freight made up the largest category of goods exported through the Tunnel at £9.9 billion, according to the study. Computers and electronics followed at £8 billion, then motor vehicles, parts and other transport equipment at £6.1 billion and iron, steel and metal products at £4 billion. Processed and prepared food was at £2 billion and perishable goods at £1 billion.