The Underground to Paris

May 08, 1994

Great state occasions, like ocean liners, are slow to turn, difficult to move. And so the opening of the Channel Tunnel went ahead as planned, more than one year delayed, with Queen Elizabeth II of England and President Francois Mitterrand of France dining and transiting together, although there was nothing to open. More work needs doing. Scheduled use by inter-city trains, shuttle trains bearing trucks and others bearing passenger cars will be phased in from spring to autumn.

Typical of engineering marvels, the Chunnel comes in a year late with cost overruns of 100 percent. Actually, it is a century late. Tunneling under the English Channel began in 1880 and was suspended for political not engineering reasons (British fears of invasion) before resuming in 1987. Tunnels are aesthetically disappointing engineering marvels because -- witness the two under Baltimore harbor -- they are unseen. Bridges and cathedrals, by contrast, are feasts for the eyes.

Despite the capital cost ($15.7 billion), stretched-out payment time and loss projections, the Channel Tunnel will be a fantastic success. Like a two-lane freeway, it cannot possibly keep up with the demand it creates. Delays at the terminals will regulate its use. That is because its coming coincides with consolidation of the single market of the European Union with great increases of trade, tourism and business travel.

The 31.4-mile rail tunnels in each direction will take on ever-larger loads of French cheeses and British textiles. Rail travel from London to Paris and to Brussels will increasingly resemble that between Baltimore and New York in ease and humdrum-ness. Families on driving vacations will make quicker get-aways to the land where the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car.

And because of increasing demand, such rival modes of transport as airliners, air freight, ferries and hovercraft will not disappear but compete in price wars for shares of an enlarging pie. Like Maryland's Bay Bridge, the Channel Tunnel will be shown by consultants a few years hence to be hopelessly inadequate and in need of a mate.

The negatives are invasion, not by hostile armies as feared in the past, but by uncouth tourists unversed in the manners of the other side, criminals, drugs and rabid animals. From London, Paris loses its mystery, and vice versa. Such is the price of progress. The progress is immense.

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