Project Hits Steep Overruns

SIR Alastair Morton, chief executive of Eurotunnel, the Anglo-French consortium that will operate the Channel Tunnel, will be an anxious man until October next year, when the fixed link is due to open.

His organization is in head-on collision with Transmanche Link (TML), the association of British and French contractors building the tunnel, about project cost overruns totaling an estimated $2.2 billion. Last month Sir Alastair, a former World Bank executive, warned of further delays in the Chunnel's opening date if arguing about who should shoulder the extra cost does not cease.

"This is a poker game," he said. "There is a threat to the completion date from the posturing of contractors. Games-playing can slow down progress."

Sir Alastair already is upset that the Chunnel's original target-completion date - June next year - will not be met because of earlier hold-ups in the boring program.

On the other hand, what will have been achieved when the bickering and financial nail-biting are over is breathtaking. Four types of trains will use the Chunnel:

* Tourist shuttle trains, 28 cars long and traveling at 80 m.p.h. between terminals at Folkestone and Coquelles, will carry cars and their passengers.

* Freight shuttles will haul heavy goods.

* Passenger trains - up to four an hour - will speed between London, Paris, and Brussels.

* Long container trains will carry bulk freight between centers in Britain and mainland Europe.

To satisfy the 220 banks that have extended $14.5 billion in credit to Eurotunnel, Sir Alastair and his colleagues have had to make firm forecasts about traffic.

Tunnel researchers expect 28 million passengers to use the tube in the first year, and 44 million by 2003. Forecasts set tunnel use at 16 million tons of freight after 1993, and 27 million a decade later. If these targets are not met, Eurotunnel will have trouble earning the returns necessary to repay its debts. Fares will have to be raised, and Sir Alastair concedes this might improve the ability of the ferry companies to compete.

An executive of a leading ferry company said: "I don't want to knock the Chunnel, but we can offer better comfort and a journey only a few minutes longer - and not everybody wants to travel in a sealed tube for half an hour under the bottom of the ocean."

How travelers will take to what some call claustrophobic conditions on Chunnel trains is disputed by Eurotunnel and the respected British Consumers' Association. Last month the CA accused the fixed-link operators and official safety organizations of erecting "a ... wall of secrecy" about safety standards on the trains.

Sue Leggate, editor of the CA's magazine "Which?" published an article in the May issue that concluded: "As long as our questions have not been answered, we can't be confident about the tunnel's safety." Ms. Leggate is especially worried about the potential fire hazards aboard shuttle trains.

A Eurotunnel executive said fire detection and extinguishing systems, plus heat-resistant barriers between train cars, would cope with any blaze for the duration of the brief cross-Channel journey.

But an opinion survey carried out by the CA earlier this year showed that 61 percent of those questioned were worried about the dangers of traveling in the Chunnel compared with 44 percent for cross-Channel ferries.

Another of Eurotunnel's concerns is the failure of Britain's transport authorities to match their French counterparts in building track suitable for high-speed trains between the coast and the capital.

South-east England is the country's most densely populated region - the Nord-Pas de Calais is underpopulated by comparison - and there have been long delays as citizens opposed the routing of trains close to their homes.

The result, a British Rail official conceded, was that on the French side high-speed trains would be up and running when the Chunnel opens, whereas it may not be until the end of the century that equivalent service is available in Britain.

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