French steel could feed `chunnel' project

One of the greatest boosts for the French steel industry may come from a recent Franco-British agreement over the construction of an English Channel bridge or tunnel meant to join Britain with the European mainland. In a meeting earlier this spring, the French and British transport ministers gave the go-ahead to companies wanting to submit proposals over how to build the eventual trans-channel link. After two decades of political wrangling and indecision, this agreement in principle is a milestone for the two countries.

One of the major proposals up for consideration is being offered by the Compagnie Franaise des Entreprises M'etalliques (CFEM), a high-tech engineering division of the state-controlled French steel industry. British and Dutch companies are also in the running.

CFEM firmly established its reputation as a major innovator in maritime engineering in 1983 when it designed and built a new generation of offshore oil drilling platforms. These platforms were the first that were able to be moved quickly from one oil field to another and yet were sturdy enough to work all winter long in North Sea conditions. One CFEM platform working for Gulf Oil, the gigantic Glomar Moray Firth, remained in place off the Norwegian coast last winter amid unheard-of 60-foot waves and 100 mile-an-hour winds.

This success marks CFEM as a likely candidate to build a bridge across the English Channel, which also weathers severe winter storms that sometimes disrupt shipping. CFEM designers are completing work on a proposal for a combination bridge and tunnel which they think has a very good chance of winning. The bridge would convert to a tunnel for 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) midchannel, leaving that space open for passing ships.

Although CFEM's bridge-tunnel hybrid would be far more expensive to build than a simple tunnel -- $3 billion compared with $1 billion -- it would also allow for both rail and road transport, whereas the tunnel would only carry trains. Cars and trucks today account for 80 percent of all trans-channel traffic, and so tolls paid for the crossing would quickly add up.

The French and British governments have marked September as the deadline for the submission of all construction proposals. They intend to announce their final choice by the end of the year.

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