British prepare to bury their doubt and buy the Chunnel

It's been called the biggest bore of the century. It's still in the planning stages after 178 years. But it has given us a new word: "Chunnel," or channel tunnel.

A French engineer in 1802 hatched the scheme for burrowing 20 miles under the English Channel between Britain and France. He even envisioned a mid-channel island where the horses (what else would pull the wagons?) could be refreshed. But politics did him in: Napolean showed an interest, and the thought of the Emperor's troops boiling up out of a hole in the ground near Dover chilled the British response.

Now, like the sunspots, the idea has come round once again.

Britain's Transport Secretary, Norman Fowler, made it clear March 19 that the latest scheme -- a single-track tunnel with parallel service tube, proposed by British Rail at a cost of about L800 million ($1,800 million) -- emphatically is not a candidate for government expenditure.

But, in his answer to a question in the House of Commons, he added that "if the scheme is commercially sound, I see no reason why private risk capital should not be available." He also noted that "suitable arrangements" could be made between the British and French governments.

Shortly after his statement, a consortium of British, French, West German, and Dutch engineering firms, led by former British Airways chairman Sir David Nicolson, offered to finance and build the tunnel for a rock-bottom L540 million ($1,200 million).

According to British Rail, a tunnel under the world's most heavily trafficked waterway, which would take some seven years to construct, could carry 8 million passengers and 7.9 million tons of freight by the turn of the century and could produce a return on capital of 13.5 percent.

Chunnel-watchers are awaiting a report by Sir Alec Cairncross to the government, which again will look at single and double-barreled bores, cross-channel bridges, and immersed- tube tunnels dropped into the seabed.

The security risk posed to Britain's insularity by the Chunnel was finally laid to rest by the Ministry of Defense a few years ago. Before that, chauvinistic ministers were on record with comments suggesting that the distance between Britain and France, which the Chunnel would reduce, was already far too short.Prime Minister William Gladstone himself went down into a 2,000-yard pilot tunnel near Folkestone in the early 1880s -- before public outcry scrubbed the venture.

The bravest attempt began in the 1970s. Geologists, having determined that the veins of chalk underlying the English Downs extended under the channel to within a stone's throw of France, proposed that a drilling rig, or "mole," be designed to follow the rock. Plans were laid, private and public funds were raised, and a hole nearly a mile long was dug near Dover -- intersecting, as it went, Mr. Gladstone's tunnel, which turned out to be woefully off course.

The French, for their part, burrowed down at Calais. Guided by lasers, the two were to meet under the 50-meter-deep channel. But the French got bogged down in mud, rains, and misfortune. And the English got bogged down in politics , with then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson calling a halt to the project in 1975 as costs mounted. The hole is still there at Dover. So is the hole in French enthusiasm for British politics.

British Rail now wants another go at it -- this time, perhaps with some European Community (EC) funds. The single-track tunnel proposed is the least expensive of the practical ventures and would allow 120 trains a day connecting London to paris in 4 1/2 hours.

If it ever gets finished, it won't be a first. The Japanese are boring 33 miles under sea to one of their islands.

But it just could prove significant in other ways than commercial ways. If the EC gets involved, it could become a test case for large transportation projects in the community. And if it brings the French and English closer together, it could rub off some of the cross- channel chill that has developed over EC funds, lamb imports, North Sea oil sharing, and fishing rights.

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