A Brief History Of The Channel Tunnel

A Brief History Of The Channel Tunnel

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Black and white film still of men with steam contraptions digging a tunnel
Tunnel-digging attempts began earlier than you might think, although, alas, this isn't a genuine photo of that, but rather, a still from the Georges Méliès film Le Tunnel sous la Manche. Image: public domain

2024 marks the 30th anniversary of Eurostar — but the history of a tunnel linking England and France goes back waaaay before then, as our whistle-stop history discovers.

1802 (1 August): The French mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier puts forward his design for a cross-Channel tunnel, which would allow stage coaches to run along a path lit by oil lamps. It comes to naught, but tunnel fever has arrived, with everyone from Napoleon to Queen Victoria becoming supporters of the idea over the coming decades.

1834: Another French mining engineer, Aimé Thomé de Gamond, suggests that newfangled trains could travel through a cross-channel tunnel. Just imagine! He spends 30 years working on various plans for such an idea, but is widely ridiculed, and dies impecunious.

An illustration of a early tunnel, showing a harbour built in the middle of the sea
Thomé de Gamond's plan for a Channel tunnel, with a harbour mid-Channel on the Varne sandbank. Image: public domain

1880: Work finally begins on digging an actual real-life tunnel between Britain and France — spearheaded by MP and 'Railway King' Edward Watkin. Shafts are sunk on both sides of the water, but the tunnel is soon abandoned, due to technical difficulties, not to mention paranoia that the French might utilise the tunnel for a sneaky invasion. There's also fear that a tunnel would welcome back rabies into Britain.

1907: Georges Méliès's film Le Tunnel sous la Manche (Tunneling the English Channel) is released. It depicts King Edward VII and President Armand Fallières sharing a dream about creating a tunnel. Méliès humbly casts himself in the role of the engineer.

1936: Winston Churchill writes an article in the Daily Mail: "Why Not a Channel Tunnel?", which is enthusiastic about building such a crossing. It's less to do with facilitating holidays, though, and more about creating a tangible link between Britain and the continent (for shuttling soldiers, weapons and other supplies) in the face of looming war.

1973: The Franco-British Channel Tunnel Treaty is signed by prime minster Edward Heath and French president Georges Pompidou. This time it's going to happen. It's got to.

1975: Prime minister Harold Wilson cancels the Franco-British Channel Tunnel Treaty. It's not going to happen.

1986: ANOTHER agreement is made to create a Channel Tunnel. In the talks, British prime minster Margaret Thatcher pushes hard for a road tunnel for individual cars. She's eventually dissuaded by the associated safety fears, although she insists that when the tech is there, her road tunnel is built. (Come 2024, it still hasn't been built.)

A huge boring machine in the tunnel
13,000 workers helped to bore the crossing. Image: Tambo via creative commons

1988: Construction on the Channel Tunnel begins. 13,000 workers excavate two rail tunnels (plus a third service tunnel, which can also be used to evacuate passengers), using 11 tunnel boring machines, which gnash their way through the chalk at around 15 feet per hour.

1989 (9 March): The British government proposes that the route for the new High Speed line (HS1) goes through Peckham. There is uproar from locals, and the plan is later dismissed, in favour of rails that pass through Stratford.

1990: An Englishman and a Frenchman, Graham Fagg and Phillippe Cozette, meet in the middle of the tunnel, to exchange flags. Fagg also hands Cozette a Paddington Bear. The tunnels stretch 31.37 miles, making this the first time that there's been a land link between the island of Britain and the European Continent since the last Ice Age.

1994 (6 May): Queen Elizabeth II and French president Francois Mitterrand meet in Calais, and get into a Rolls-Royce, which drives aboard Le Shuttle, thence to Folkestone. Their respective spouses follow in a Citroen. The Channel Tunnel is open for business! (The car shuttle bit, anyway.)

The Queen and François Mitterrand walking together with an entourage
The Queen and François Mitterrand on the day of the Tunnel's opening, 1994. Image: Thierry Dauwe / European Communities, 1994 / EC - Audiovisual Service

1994 (14 November): The first Eurostar passenger service departs from Waterloo to Gare du Nord station, then onwards to Brussels-Midi/Zuid and Lille. For the first time in history, London has a direct train service to Europe. Well, unless you count the Night Ferry.

Mid-1990s: An overnight sleeper service, Nightstar, is proposed, with special stock being built. The idea will be spiked in 1997, with the trains being flogged to Canada on the cheap.

1996: The Channel Tunnel is named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Panama Canal and the Empire State Building.

1996: IMF agent Ethan Hunt is pursued into the tunnel by a baddy in a helicopter, as the first Mission: Impossible film makes use of the new infrastructure.

1996 (29 June): The first Eurostar service runs to Disneyland. Cash-strapped parents up and down Britain wring their hands.

1996 (18 November): A fire breaks out on a lorry travelling on a shuttle train. It's the first of a number of fires to break out in the Tunnel; others will occur in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2015.

A chalky cliff with new infill land below it
Samphire Hoe! (It's fun to shout). Image: GkgAlf via creative commons

1997 (17 July): Samphire Hoe, a brand new nature reserve built to the east of Folkestone — using the chalk spoil bored to create the tunnel — opens to the public.

1999: Transport Select Committee member Graham Stringer says northern regions of Britain have been conned after it's made clear that Regional Eurostar services that would go to the likes of Glasgow and Manchester, are not going to happen.

2002 (20 July): A summer Eurostar service to Avignon is launched.

2003 (30 July): A new rail-speed record for Britain is set, with tests on the the High Speed 1 (HS1) line, which will eventually run between London and the Tunnel. On 28 September, the first section of HS1 opens between the Channel Tunnel and Fawkham Junction in Kent. The second section between Fawkham Junction and London won't open until November 2007.

2007 (17 November): Eurostar gets a new London home, as the first service departs from the freshly renovated St Pancras station. HS1 is now in full operation! Eurostar's chief executive, hails a "new dawn for short haul travel in Europe".

Two Eurostar trains at St Pancras
30 years of this lovely thing... well, the train bit of it, anyway. Image: Shutterstock

2018 (Jan): Hot off the heels of steering Britain headlong into Brexit, foreign sec Boris Johnson has the bright idea of a 22-mile long bridge linking England and France. Even Nigel Farage says it's a bad idea.

2018: Well I'll Edam'd! Eurostar starts running trains between London and the Netherlands.

2018 (Dec): Waterloo's old Eurostar platforms reopen... but not as Eurostar platforms. Londonist catches a train, bound no longer for Paris, but Reading.

2019 (June): Eurostar backtracks on strict rules about taking alcohol on its services, after blogger The Man in Seat 61 flags how stingy they are. All those French people bringing back bottles of English wine must feel very relieved.

A Disneyland sign is seen on the wall of a station. It shows Mickey mouse pointing to the right of the image with the words "Disneyland. Closer than you think" underneath
Ashford International hasn't been in use since 2020. Image: Charlotte Maughan Jones

2019 (Dec) Londonist publishes a searing article: Why's It Called Stratford International If It Has No International Trains?

2020 (March): As Eurostar hunkers down during the Covid pandemic, it's announced that Ebbsfleet and Ashford International stations won't be served by Eurostar trains until 2022. Come 2024, still no Eurostars are running from these stations.

2022 (23 Aug): Eurotunnel passengers are stranded beneath the sea for almost five hours, after a train breaks down.

2023: Another batch of stranded passengers are less fortunate, when a spiky alien rips them to pieces. At least according to the s0-so Apple TV series Invasion.

2024 (14 Nov): 30th anniversary of the first Eurostar service.

Last Updated 08 January 2024

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