Tunnelling began in 1987, requiring 11 boring machines and 15,000 construction workers ©Getty Images
Tunnelling began in 1987, requiring 11 boring machines and 15,000 construction workers ©Getty Images

Supply audit: the Channel Tunnel

6 September 2019

This submarine feat of engineering is celebrating 25 years. The ultimate entente cordiale, the Channel Tunnel is an artery for business, trade and tourism.

25 years? It must’ve seen a lot of traffic.
You bet. There are three tunnels – two for trains and one for maintenance vehicles. Four train services operate: Eurostar, carrying 11m passengers a year; Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, which transported 2.7m cars and 51,000 coaches last year; Eurotunnel Le Shuttle Freight, for heavy goods vehicles; and freight trains.

At more than 31 miles long, the Chunnel must have required a lot of digging?
Back-breaking work, especially when you consider that 23.5 miles of it are underwater, making it the longest undersea section of tunnel in the world. Tunnelling began in 1987, requiring 11 boring machines and 15,000 construction workers at its peak, and costing £4.65bn.

And did the earth move?
The earth dug out was enough to fill Wembley Stadium seven times. Tunnellers broke through the final section in December 1990. Frenchman Phillippe Cozette and Englishman Graham Fagg were first to shake hands (and sip Champagne) through the hole.

The culmination of years of planning…
As early as 1802 there were proposals for a cross-Channel tunnel for horse-drawn carts, lit by oil lamps, with an island halfway across for switching horses.

How important is the Chunnel for trade?
Since the tunnel first opened in 1994, almost 410m tonnes of freight have passed through. Currently, 26% of goods traded between the UK and continental Europe use this artery, amounting to £138bn of product every year. This includes £12bn of fresh fruit and vegetables and over 360m parcels. Postal and courier freight is the biggest category (€38.6bn worth in 2016), followed by food and drink. Proving that chivalry’s not dead, for Valentine’s Day every year, around 26m red roses pass through.

Does it have any other uses?
Engineers are currently laying a 1GW electrical interconnector through the service tunnel called ElecLink. Once completed, this will conduct surplus electricity between Britain and France, increasing electrical exchange by 50%.

Does anyone else use the Chunnel?
Occasionally. In 2014, as part of a Tour de France stunt, Chris Froome pedalled through in under an hour.

Speedy service
Since the year 2000, when pets were first permitted, 2.6m dogs and cats have travelled through. Other furry (and not so furry) passengers have included cheetahs, snakes, penguins, eagles, tigers, sharks, butterflies, lizards and a giant tortoise.

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