Guest Post by Alizee Mosconi
Dec. 1, 1990. Surrounded by the media, a British worker and a French worker are shaking hands under the English Channel. They have just broken through the few inches of rock standing between the French Channel Tunnel and the English Channel Tunnel. Henceforth, there is only one tunnel, connecting Britain to the continent in ways that ships or planes had not before. When the Channel Tunnel or “Chunnel” officially opened, in 1994, after six years of construction, London was a mere two-hour train ride from Paris. “It’s shorter to go to London than, say, Montpellier or Toulouse” from Paris, notes Lauric Henneton, a lecturer at the University of Versailles-St-Quentin (UVSQ), in France.
The Channel Tunnel, also known as the “Chunnel”, has connected London to other important big cities in Europe by train. London is now about 80 minutes by train from Lille, just under two hours from Brussels and a little under five hours from Lyon.
The Chunnel is a feat of construction and engineering prowess, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is the longest undersea tunnel on the globe, extending 23.5 miles (37.9 kilometers) beneath the English Channel, with the lowest point 75 meters below sea level.
“I always think about it when I’m down there, even when I’m busy working, I can’t help thinking that I’m under the bottom of the sea for about 20 minutes,” says Lauric Henneton. “It is definitely an impressive achievement.”
“The 19th century was so characterized by the railroad, and this is the next stage after just the railroad,” says Susan Conner, PhD, an Albion College professor of history specializing in Early Modern France. “It was such a feat to not just go under the Channel but actually in the dirt, in the geological strata below the water.”
The construction of the Channel Tunnel also led to a modernization of the British railroad network, notes Conner: “Initially, when the tunnel was finished, the British trains couldn’t do the speed that the French trains could, so they had to change the rails so the French trains could go all the way to London.”
The construction of the Chunnel has encouraged tourism between France and England. Increasing numbers of passengers cross the English Channel by train annually. In 2014, 21 million passengers crossed the Channel Tunnel, around 5 million people more than in 2005.
The possibility of crossing the Chunnel by train with a car is a huge advantage, especially for tourists doing road trips. The vehicles are parked into the train during the 35-minute journey between the towns of Coquelles, in France, and Folkestone, in England. Since it opened, the Chunnel has permitted more than 47 million vehicles to cross the English Channel, among them cars, motorbikes, camper vans and coaches. And the users are satisfied: According to the group Eurotunnel, the satisfaction rate of the passengers travelling with vehicles through the Chunnel reached 93 percent in 2014.
Tourists are not the only ones who can cross the Chunnel: since 2000, they have been able to travel with their pet by train. Cats, dogs but also birds, rabbits and rodents can follow their owner abroad for the holidays. Passengers are even allowed to travel with their horse, on adapted shuttles.
The construction has encouraged not only tourism between the two nations, but also trade. “The number of trucks that cross the Channel is just amazing,” says Conner. “And that’s increasing.” It is true that the train is a significant saving of time, compared to the ship. “You are not taking the product or the commodity off the truck at all,” explained Conner. Indeed, the truck is directly put in a special wagon to cross the Channel Tunnel, which is a good way to not waste time. And, as we know in business, time is money!
While the Channel Tunnel has improved the connection between the two capitals, it hasn’t boosted economically the peripheries between. “There was probably that hope by some of the smaller communities all along the Channel, in England, that there would be more of the tourist industry,” explained Conner. “That hasn’t come to be as much as people expected.” Indeed, most people who take the train to cross the Channel directly go to bigger cities.
Still, the Channel Tunnel has definitely encouraged tourism between Great Britain and France, offering to the Britons another alternative to go on the continent faster than the ship and less restricting than the plane. The possibility of crossing the English Channel quickly with your car and your pet is probably the reason of the success of the Chunnel.
Read more about the history of the Channel Tunnel here.
Photo by Alizee Mosconi