06 May 2017

History for the day: 1994: the Chunnel opens

In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened on 6 May 1994, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age.
The channel tunnel, or Chunnel, connects Folkstone, England, with Sangatte, France. The Chunnel cut travel time between England and France to thirty minutes and between London and Paris to two-and-a-half hours.
As the world’s longest undersea tunnel, the Chunnel runs under water for over twenty miles, with an average depth of a hundred and fifty feet below the seabed. Each day, about thirty thousand people, six thousand cars, and thirty-five-hundred trucks journey through the Chunnel on passenger, shuttle, and freight trains.
Millions of tons of earth were moved to build the two rail tunnels– one for northbound and one for southbound traffic– and one service tunnel. Fifteen thousand people were employed at the peak of construction, and ten people were killed during construction.
Napoleon’s engineer, Albert Mathieu, planned the first tunnel under the English Channel in 1802, envisioning an underground passage with ventilation chimneys that would stretch above the waves. In 1880, the first real attempt was made by Colonel Beaumont, who bore a tunnel more than a mile long before abandoning the project. Other efforts followed in the twentieth century, but none on the scale of the tunnels begun in June of 1988.
The Chunnel’s sixteen billion dollar cost was roughly twice the original estimate, and completion was a year behind schedule. One year into service, Eurotunnel announced a huge loss, one of the biggest in United Kingdom corporate history at the time. A scheme in which banks agreed to swap billions of pounds worth of loans for shares saved the tunnel from going under and it showed its first net profit in 1999.
Freight traffic was suspended for six months after a fire broke out on a lorry in the tunnel in November of 1996. Nobody was seriously hurt in the incident.
In 1996, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified the tunnel as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
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