TWENTY years ago today, Queen Elizabeth II and President Francois Mitterrand braved the drizzle to cut the inaugural ribbon of the Channel Tunnel, realising a centuries-old dream of linking France and Britain under the sea.
A prodigious industrial adventure, the project mobilised 12,000 engineers, technicians and workers to create the world's longest underwater tunnel over nearly 38km from northern France to southern England, earning it the “Global Engineering of the Century Award” by the International Federation of Consulting Engineers.
But the marvel of engineering, officially inaugurated by the Queen and Mitterrand on May 6, 1994, was overshadowed for years by financial problems that almost tore apart Eurotunnel, the company contracted to manage and operate the tunnel until 2086.
At the end of 1987, before work on the tunnel kicked off, hundreds of thousands of eager, small shareholders bought Eurotunnel shares in the belief that these were solid, safe investments.
But colossal debt, disappointing traffic and quarrels between shareholders and management nearly sank the company over the years.
In 1987, shares were worth 35 French francs (about €5.34 today). Fifteen years later, they were worth just a few centimes each.
The group even saw its stocks suspended for several months as it plunged deeper into the mire, until a restructuring deal was reached in 2007, paving the way for recovery.
Shareholders finally received their first-ever dividend in 2009, though it was worth just 4 centimes per share.
In 2013, Eurotunnel - which employs some 3,700 people - made a net profit of €101m, prompting chief executive Jacques Gounon to say: “For the first time in the history of Eurotunnel, we think that the situation of the group is altogether satisfactory.”
‘Not a public penny’
The idea to end Britain's isolation as an island and dig a tunnel to France emerged as early as the 18th century.
A first project was launched in the 1970s, but was quickly abandoned. Then, in January 1986, Mr Mitterrand and British leader Margaret Thatcher officially signed an agreement to kick-start construction.
Mrs Thatcher faced considerable opposition to the project within her Conservative Party, but she pushed it through and famously insisted that “not a public penny” would be used.
As a result, the contract to conceive, make and put into service the tunnel was awarded to a consortium of 10 British and French construction companies grouped under the name TransManche Link.
Construction lasted six years, cost €15bn and saw workers dig three tunnels - one for each direction and one in the middle for service work.
Vehicles can only cross the tunnel on board a rail shuttle, “as it is very difficult to ventilate a tunnel... Over a length of 50km, it's nearly impossible,” said Michel Levy of the Setec engineering group, which worked on the project.
The 1,000-tonne tunnel boring machines that dug through the ground got off to a slow start on the French side due to difficult terrain and were slowed down by water infiltrations on the British side.
But finally, in a historical moment, a British and French worker shook hands in December 1990 in the service tunnel, 100m under the Channel.
The tunnel opened in 1994 and, six months later, the first Eurostar passenger train raced through.
After initial disappointing traffic, the number of people using the tunnel increasingly grew and an estimated 325 million passengers have made the trip since 1994.
The tunnel, which carries passengers and freight traffic in separate services, has now become a formidable competitor to maritime ferry services and airlines on the Paris to London route, as we find out in the May edition of The Connexion, which is on sale across France now.
We speak to a man who commuted from Lille to London every week, one of Eurostar’s very first passengers - who now drives one of the trains, and a couple who took advantage of the train to enjoy regular weekends in France. Plus, there’s a timeline of the tunnelPick up your copy of The Connexion today.