Competition Revs for Chunnel Race

English Channel region prepares for opportunities and hardships with the opening of `Chunnel' in September 1993

A DOZEN blobs of light glowed on Capt. Geoffrey Macfarlane's sky-blue radar screen as he steered "SeaCat Scotland" out of Dover harbor. Each blob represented a vessel likely to cross the path of Hoverspeed's huge car-carrying catamaran as it headed for Calais.

"The English Channel is the busiest waterway in the world, with around 500 ship movements a day, and it seems to get more crowded every year," the skipper said as his twin-hulled ship reared up out of the water and picked up speed to 32 knots. "It's becoming an art to dodge the traffic."

Five years ago, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Francois Mitterrand signed a treaty to build a "fixed link" between England and France, it was widely assumed that after the tunnel opened in 1993 passenger ferries plying the stretch of water the French call la Manche (the sleeve) would be phased out.

It was not to be. One of the most striking effects of the "Chunnel," even before it opens, is the vigorous competition between its future operators, Eurotunnel, and shipping companies determined to keep on carrying people, cars, and freight between Britain and continental Europe.

The growing fleet of catamarans, each big enough to carry 450 passengers and 80 cars, represents only part of the fight-back approach the ferry operators are adopting.

Graeme Dunlop, managing director of P&O European Ferries, says his company has already introduced a new generation of super-ferries on the run between Dover and Calais. This summer ships like the "Pride of Kent" are carrying up to 2,000 people and 650 vehicles on the 75-minute journey.

With the cross-Channel market growing at 5 percent a year, Mr. Dunlop said, the Chunnel is "a challenge we can live with."

Hoverspeed, with its steadily expanding 45-minute SeaCat service, is just as certain that it can find a way to survive and prosper, despite the huge tube buried beneath the seabed.

The Chunnel is a mammoth project: Twin rail tunnels and a service tunnel between them each have a length of 31 miles.

But critics of the environmental as well as the economic impacts of the tunnel have been proved wrong, Eurotunnel authorities say. Long-term damage to the landscape has been kept to a minimum.

At the two Chunnel entry points - Shakespeare Cliff near Folkestone and Sangatte just south of Calais - the 5.5 million cubic yards of chalk and clay removed from the Chunnel were pumped into giant lagoons. As the lagoons filled up, large expanses of artificial land were created. These are now being planted with grass, shrubs and trees.

At Folkestone a 345-acre switchyard is nearing completion. There, cars and freight will be loaded onto trains undertaking the 35-minute Chunnel journey.

On the French side, at Coquelles where there was more room for spreading out, a 1,729 acre terminal, the size of London's Heathrow Airport, is being built. Initially land was scarred on both ends, as room was cleared for rail tracks, freight- and vehicle-loading bays, and an array of service buildings. But already the two terminal sites are being carefully landscaped.

William Coleman, a Eurotunnel official, admitted: "There are limits to what can be done to green any terrain after such massive construction efforts." But he claimed the two terminal sites had not turned out to be the eyesores some had predicted.

Roger Vickerman, head of the Channel Tunnel research unit at the University of Kent, believes that even if there had been significant damage to the landscape, it would have been a price worth paying for the variety of economic impulses already being generated by the Chunnel. "It is opening up new economic prospects not only in Britain and France but in many neighboring countries," he said.

General manager of the Calais Economic Development Council, Patrick Le Guillou, provided a measure of the Chunnel's economic impact by forecasting massive growth in the Nord-Pas de Calais area, until now plagued by slow growth and high unemployment. "At present about 10 million passengers pass through Calais every year," he said. "Before the end of the century we expect the figure to be 35 million - as many as currently use Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris."

Anticipating the opening of the Chunnel, hotel capacity in and around Calais has doubled in two years. And to handle the 30-35 million tons of freight expected to pass through the port by 1998, Mr. Le Guillou's organization has started work on a 125-acre cargo-handling center.

"The Chunnel will affect not only Anglo-French economic relations," Le Guillou said. "It will be a conduit for an expanding trade between Britain and all the countries of Europe."

The decision to build the Chunnel allowed French railways - Soci Nationale de Chemins de Fer (SNCF) - to justify building a high-speed line connecting Paris, Lille, and Brussels with Calais.

The French have also built a high-speed track from Paris to the new EuroDisneyland east of the city. Passengers from London will be able to meet Mickey Mouse via the Chunnel in under four hours.

Professor Vickerman described early British reactions to the impending advent of the Chunnel as "more modest." British Rail, he said, had had to contend with the heavy population density of Kent, where there had been vociferous protests against a high-speed rail track connecting Folkestone with London.

"The immediate local economic benefits of the Chunnel in Britain are less obvious than in France," he said. "There will inevitably be job losses in Channel ports like Dover, because the ferry companies will have to slim down their operations to compete with Eurotunnel," he says. "In Britain the longer-term economic benefits of the Chunnel are likely to be felt nearer London."

Vickerman's analysis highlights the contrast between British and French responses to the opening of the Chunnel.

James Bird, chairman of the East Kent Business Centre, which is spearheading a program of economic growth near Dover, took a cautious line. "We face a number of serious challenges, but also opportunities," he said, and pointed to figures indicating that there will be nearly 6,000 job losses in the area between now and 1995.

But among the French there tends to be boundless optimism about the future. In Calais, Mr. Le Guillou compared the importance of the Chunnel to that of the Suez Canal when it was first built.

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