British, French crews link 2 channel tunnels

October 31, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- England lost its treasured island status yesterday as the two ends of an underwater tunnel linking it with Europe were joined beneath the middle of the English Channel.

English and French workers made the historic breakthrough, 14 miles from the coastal port of Folkestone, 10 miles from the beaches of the Pas de Calais and 130 feet below the seabed of the waters that have separated them since England drifted away from the continental landmass.

First direct contact was through a tiny laser-guided probe to make sure the two ends of the tunnel were correctly aligned. It was only one small hole for the engineers -- "just large enough to get a whiff of garlic," said one British worker -- but it represented a giant opening for a united Europe.

The British tunneling machine will eventually bury itself beside the French tunnel section and will be cemented in to avoid the cost of dismantling and removing it.

The bore hole will be progressively widened until it matches the tunnel's full width in December. The first land passage from France to England will be possible when a small hand-dug access is opened between the two ends of the service tunnel in coming days. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand will shake hands in the middle of the tunnel in January.

British Broadcasting Corp. radio reported the breakthrough last night by saying that many Britons welcomed the tunnel but that others regarded it as "a betrayal" of England's island status.

It opened its broadcast with a commentary on a World War II air fight over the channel and the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "Hitler knows he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, Europe will be free."

The broadcast closed with Vera Lynn, the sweetheart of wartime soldiers, singing "The White Cliffs of Dover" and "There'll Always Be an England."

In an interview, she said: "I think I would still like to have been without the tunnel, really."

The historic breakthrough came in the central service tunnel that runs between the two main rail tunnels that are expected to start operating in the summer of 1993.

For almost 200 years, civil engineers have proposed various ideas for tunneling beneath the channel, but politicians kept having second thoughts.

French mining engineer Albert Mathieu first suggested a tunnel in 1802, and Napoleon Bonaparte quickly adopted the idea. It got the thumbs-down in London.

Another start was made in 1881, but it quickly ran out of support and money, particularly after Queen Victoria, who was initially enthusiastic because she suffered from seasickness, decided it was a threat to national security.

Seven times digging started, and seven times it stopped. The eighth attempt, which began in 1987, received full support on both sides of the channel, but only after the project met Mrs. Thatcher's demand that it be privately financed.

Raising the $14.8 billion has not been easy for Eurotunnel, the Anglo-French tunnel consortium. Doubts about the project's feasibility undermined financial confidence, provoking occasional funding crises. But just last week the 210 international banks backing Eurotunnel finally agreed to increase their lending from $9.75 billion to $13.26 billion.

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