Dover Index

The Channel Tunnel


Line drawing of the Channel Tunnel and rail tracks on both terminals


When the Channel Tunnel was being built at the end of the 20th century there was a belief among many people that it would sound the death knoll of the shipping industry on the short sea route from Dover to Calais.

In the event, after 14 years of operation of the Tunnel, Dover Harbour Board is planning to build four new ferry berths to cope with the ever-increasing traffic through the port, while Eurotunnel, the company that owns and runs the Tunnel, has yet (in 2008) to clear its debts and make a profit.

But the Tunnel is not a 20th century idea: it was first proposed by French mining engineer Albert Mathieu in 1802.  His plans, which he displayed in Paris, showed a tunnel in two sections, with an artificial island in mid-channel, on the Varne Bank.  The two tunnels, which would have had a total length of 18½ miles, were to be illuminated by oil lamps and ventilated by chimneys at intervals along its length, projecting above the surface of the waves.  Teams of horses, which would be changed over at the island in the middle, would pull coaches filled with passengers and mail, with a crossing time of around 2 hours.  Napoleon Bonaparte was very impressed with the project and presented it to Charles James Fox when they met at the Peace of Amiens.

A second proposal was put forward the following year, also by a Frenchman, this time for a submerged tube laid on the seabed.  Both schemes were soon forgotten and it would be another 30 years before Aimé Thomé de Gamond, a young French engineer, made detailed hydrographic and geological surveys of the seabed.  The following year - 1834 - he proposed a plan for a pre-fabricated iron tube, laid on the seabed and lined with masonry.  To prepare for this, the seabed would need to be levelled using a battering ram and rake operating from a boat.  In 1835 he modified his scheme to eliminate the iron tube by using a kind of extrusion process to lay a masonry tube; a scheme he projected would take 30 years to complete unless work was carried out simultaneously from both sides of the Channel.

During the following year, de Gamond produced detailed plans for 5 different types of bridge across the Channel.  Probably the most ambitious was for a granite and steel bridge with arches higher than St Paul's Cathedral, between Ness Corner Point and Calais.  Another involved a flat-bottomed boat, made of concrete and stone, powered by steam, which would run between two piers, each 5 miles long, built out into the Channel at Ness Corner Point and Cap Gris-Nez.  A third, equally impractical, proposal was to build an artificial isthmus of stone from Cap Gris-Nez to Dover, with 3 small gaps traversed by movable bridges to allow for the passage of ships up and down the Channel.  This was, apparently, his favourite scheme and, in 1851, he travelled to London to promote it at the Great Exhibition.  However, the projected cost of £33.6 million and the "obstinate resistance of mariners, who objected to their being obliged to ply their ships through the narrow channels," caused him to abandon the scheme.

Various schemes were put forward in France over the course of the next two decades, many of them by de Gamond, but none ever came to fruition.  In 1856, he presented his latest scheme to Napoleon III, who showed a great deal of interest.  He also managed to gain the support of three of Britain's greatest civil engineers: Robert Stevenson; Isambard Kingdom Brunel; and Joseph Locke, and the Illustrated London News praised the scheme in an article.  His greatest achievement was probably obtaining the support of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria - a great sufferer from sea-sickness.  The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, however, was not enthusiastic about the scheme; he is reputed to have exclaimed, "What! You pretend to ask us to contribute to a work the object of which is to shorten a distance which we find already too short!"  He is also reported to have suggested to Prince Albert that he might think differently if he had been born on this island.

Many of the schemes have foundered, not on practical or financial grounds, but because of a fear that they would provide an easy route for invading forces from France in time of war, which was a not-infrequent occurrence in the past centuries.  This was the case in 1858, when an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III with a bomb took France to war on the side of the Italians against Austria; the bombs were supposedly made in Birmingham, and this led to fears of an attempted invasion.

De Gamond spent all of his personal fortune promoting his various schemes over 35 years; he died in 1876, having spent his later years living in "humble circumstances", supported in  by his daughter, who gave piano lessons.

In the early 1850s, an English mining engineer named William Low, who had gained a great deal of experience in the Welsh mines, produced a design for a dual tunnel, each having a single railway track, connected at intervals by cross-tunnels.  Ventilation was to be provided by the piston-effect of the trains travelling through the tunnel.  This design was to form the basis of the design put forward by the Channel Tunnel Study Group in 1960 and the tunnel which was eventually built almost 150 years later.

In 1872, the plans were advanced to a point where a Channel Tunnel Company was formed in England, and engineers were appointed to execute the scheme, which would involve digging a tunnel from Dover to Sangatte.  The cost, including building 33 miles of railway to connect to the existing railways on both sides of the Channel, was projected to be £10 million.  They even went as far as to obtaining powers to purchase land at St Margaret's Bay to carry out experimental tunnelling work.  A similar company was formed in France and obtained permission to start digging at a point between Boulogne and Calais.  So confident were the French company that a table of fares and freight charges was published.

In the event, the scheme did not get off the ground and it was 1880 before work actually commenced on digging a tunnel.  The promoter of this scheme was Sir Edward Watkin M.P., the son of a Manchester cotton merchant, and chairman of, amongst others, the South-Eastern Railway.  He envisaged a continuous route over his companies' lines, from Manchester to Dover and across the Channel to France.  Digging began with the sinking of a 74-foot shaft next to the SER line at Abbots Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone.  A 7ft. diameter pilot gallery was driven from the bottom of the shaft, stretching about half a mile out to sea by the following year.  He formed the Submarine Continental Railway Company and reached an agreement with the French Channel Tunnel Company to construct the tunnel.  A second shaft, farther east than the original, was sunk to a depth of 160 feet (120 feet below the high-water mark) and a new pilot tunnel was commenced, using a boring machine of a similar design to that used to build the present tunnel.  The idea was to drive the 7ft. pilot tunnel from both sides of the Channel, meeting in the middle.  This would then be enlarged to 14ft. using special machines and a double tunnel, lined with concrete and connected by cross-passages, constructed.  The tunnel would be lit by the new electric lights and the trains would be drawn by locomotives powered by compressed air carried in tanks behind the engine; this would also ventilate the tunnel.

While digging progressed on both sides of the Channel, opposition to the scheme in Parliament was building; even the Queen, who had so enthusiastically supported the scheme in the 1850s, was now vehemently opposed to it.  Despite a prolonged period of peace between the two countries, fears were still being expressed about the dangers of a fixed link.  A letter to The Times in 1881 stated that the tunnel, if constructed, could easily be seized by the French and that "in three hours a cavalry force might be sent through to seize the approaches at the English End."  Watkin replied that the tunnel might easily be rendered unusable by "a pound of dynamite or a keg of gunpowder."  Applying for permission to purchase more land for the construction of the approaches, he was forced to explain that, as well as fortifying the entrance, the tunnel could be disabled by flooding, filling it with steam, dumping shingle into the entrance, exploding charges in the tunnel, or by firing on it from the shore- and pier batteries to the west of Dover.  He even suggested having a button at the Horse Guards to electrically detonate the charges!

General Wolseley explained how easily the tunnel could be used by enemy forces to invade:

"A couple of thousand armed men might easily come through the tunnel in a train at night, avoiding all suspicion by being dressed as ordinary passengers, and the first thing we should know of it would be by finding the fort at our end of the tunnel, together with its telegraph office, and all the electrical arrangements, wires, batteries, etc., intended for the destruction of the tunnel, in the hands of an enemy."

With trains able to travel through the tunnel at 5-minute intervals, and a journey time from Calais to Dover of less than half an hour, he said that, even allowing for an interval of 12 minutes between each train, 20,000 infantry could be poured into Dover in 20 trains in the space of just 4 hours.

"The invasion of England could not be attempted by 5,000 men, but half that number, ably led by a daring, dashing young commander might, I feel, some dark night, easily make themselves masters of the works at our end of the tunnel, and then England would be at the mercy of the invader."

On  1st April 1882 the Board of Trade forced work to cease on the English side pending the outcome of the Government's deliberations on the military security of the tunnel.  The workings were shut down, but they could still be accessed up to the commencement of works on the new tunnel in the late 20th century.  Cut into the chalk of the access tunnel, in crude letters, an inscription could be seen:


Who was William Sharp?  Maybe we will never know.

In 1892, Watkins decided to bore a new shaft, a few yards from the original one.  This shaft was bored to a depth of 2,222 feet into a 4ft. seam of good quality coal, and the company obtained authority by Act of Parliament to mine the coal under the foreshore.  The original tunnel workings were finally abandoned and the shaft was filled in with colliery waste in 1902.  After a number of accidents, at least one of which was fatal, the company ran into financial trouble around 1907, and the owners decided instead to try mining the iron ore from the workings; but this, too, proved financially un-viable.  The Channel Steel Company, formed to work the ore, went into voluntary liquidation in 1952, and the mining rights reverted to the Government.

In total, between 1882 and 1950, the subject of a Channel Tunnel was raised in the British Parliament some 35 times, and 10 Bills in favour of the project were rejected, despite some very close votes in the House.  One scheme was rejected in 1914, just weeks before the start of the Great War; another was rejected in May 1930, due to objections from the Committee of Imperial Defence.  These objections were not purely based upon the possibility of invasion, but also on fears that a tunnel would all but destroy the cross-Channel shipping trade and cause the harbours on the Channel coast to fall into disrepair and silting-up, rendering them useless to the Navy. 

In 1939, the French Chamber of Deputies put up a proposal, but the British Government, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, turned it down.  Considerations were also given in 1942 to digging a tunnel to supply Allied troops after the invasion, but these were dropped because it would have taken longer to dig the tunnel than the war was expected to last.

Proposals were originally given the go-ahead in the 1960s for work to start in 1970, with an opening date set for 1975.  This tunnel would be for train traffic only - many previous schemes had involved road tunnels or a combination of road and rail - with cars carried on trucks.  The proposed tunnel would be 40 miles long, the English entrance being between Ashford and Folkestone and the French entrance at Sangatte, near Calais.  It was estimated that the total journey time, including loading and unloading, would be a little over an hour.

The plans were delayed, and an article in the Evening News of 16th October 1972 reported a scheduled opening date of May 1980.  By now, timetables for the train service from London to Paris had been printed and plans were being made for 150 mph passenger services from Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Rotterdam, Cologne, Basle and Milan.  The cost of the project was estimated, at 1972 prices, to be £366 million. 

A year later this estimate had been revised to £938 million.  Mr. Keith Wickenden, chairman of European Ferries, suggested that the original Government estimate of £366 million would increase to £400 million at January 1973 prices.  Adding interest at 10% p.a. spread over the proposed construction period of 1975-80 would increase the cost to £500 million by 1980.  Assuming 5% p.a. inflation, the total would increase to £650 million; a 9% inflation rate (not un-realistic in the late 1970s) would bring the cost to £782 million.  However, he suggested that a two-year delay would not be unexpected in a project of this size, which, at a 9% inflation rate, would bring the cost to £938 million.  The Government estimates suggested that the tunnel would, if completed in 1980, show a profit by 1990.

A test tunnel was dug to a distance of 820ft and the project was abandoned yet again in 1975 due to excessive cost!

Finally, in 1986, a treaty was signed between the two Governments of France and Britain and ratified in 1987 and work commenced on the tunnel.  13,000 workers were employed on the project over a period of seven years.  The pilot tunnel met in the middle of the Channel on 30th October 1990 and the service tunnels broke through on 1st December. 

5,000,000 cubic yards of chalk were excavated from the British side and were dumped into the sea at the base of Shakespeare Cliff to form a 90 acre nature reserve called Samphire Ho.

The tunnel was officially opened by the Queen and President Mitterrand on 6th May 1994.  The total estimated cost was £10,000 million. 

Breda-type truck shuttle wagons

On 18th November 1996 a serious fire, which started in a lorry on one of the Shuttle wagons, caused extensive damage to the tunnel, partially closing operations for six months.  Over 1,300 tonnes of concrete lining had to be replaced, along with the reinforcing steel.  In addition, 500 metres of track, along with the supporting blocks, had to be replaced, along with 2,600 metres of traction power catenary cable, 4,000 metres of signalling cable, over 4,400 metres of lighting and power cables, 4,200 metres of fibre-optic communications cable, and 1,000 metres of 400mm cooling water pipes.

Despite operating at near capacity, reported losses in 2003 were £1,330 million and £570 million in 2004.  Eurotunnel, the operators of the tunnel, have been in constant negotiations with their creditors in an attempt to reduce their debts.

  Historical information on this page extracted from: The Tunnel under the Channel, by Thomas Whiteside, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1962; Eurotunnel, an illustrated History of the Channel Tunnel Scheme, by Peter Haining, published by the New English Library, 1973; and WikipediaInformation on the Tunnel fire from The fire in the Channel Tunnel, by C.J. Kirkland, Halcrow Consulting Engineers.  Pictures from Eurotunnel website.