The history of the Channel Tunnel


There can be few projects in the world which have attracted the same levels of criticism and praise than that of the Channel Tunnel. The tunnel itself is an undersea link between Folkestone in Kent and Coquelles which is near Calais in France. However, the impact which the Channel Tunnel has had on the French property market is clear with more and more UK travellers looking to acquire properties in France and using the Channel Tunnel as their route to the country.

While the history of the Channel Tunnel is chequered to say the least it has been identified as one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers and has the longest portion of any tunnel in the world below sea level. It is truly an engineering masterpiece but few people will know that the first link between France and Britain was actually suggested back in the 1802.

The road to the Channel Tunnel project

The first ever suggestion of a link between France and England goes back to 1802 when Albert Mathieu’s suggested the creation of a mid-Channel artificial island which would have depended upon horse-drawn carts to ship people between the “countries”. This idea never got off the ground but the seeds were planted for yet more attempts in the future.

For the next 170 years there was a major issue with security and with Britain being the island it is governments were very apprehensive about opening up the country’s borders and the potential problems which it may bring. However, the first actual construction of a Channel Tunnel began in 1974 when work from both the French and the British side commenced. Unfortunately the British government had a change of mind shortly after work began and the project was cancelled for “financial reasons”.

1985 was the breakthrough which many people had been waiting for when the UK and French governments invited submissions for the new Channel Tunnel. After two years of considerations the project began in 1987 and finally ended in 1993 when the Channel Tunnel was born and connections between France and Britain changed forever.

The building of the Channel Tunnel

When the detailed submissions were received it was agreed that Eurotunnel would be awarded the contract although the final construction cost of the project came in at £4.6 billion which was actually 80% over the initial budget.

It was decided that there will be three tunnels under the sea, two for the transport services and one to be used as a service tunnel – in effect a rescue tunnel as well. There are three services available within the Channel Tunnel which are the Eurostar passenger train, the Euro shuttle which is a roll on roll off service for road vehicles and freight trains.

While there was one overall company looking after the creation of the Channel Tunnel, i.e.Eurotunnel, this was a joint owned French and British company which was listed on the international stock market. The first of their massive tunnelling machines roared into life in 1987 and by 1 December 1990 the first of the three tunnels was completed. The French and British workers (who were each working on their own site of the tunnel) broke through and joined the tunnels on what was a momentous day in the project.  In 1991 the two adjacent tunnels were completed and the project was now well underway.

The challenge of linking Britain and France

While the challenge of building the Channel Tunnel was large enough in itself they were also many issues with the British and French workers and the methods and equipment which they used. As work began on each side of the Channel the idea was to meet in the middle and then expand into the two adjacent tunnels and complete the project. However, the French construction teams and the UK construction teams used different methods to seal the tunnel and protect it from the immense pressure and danger of the sea above. Even though this worked well in the end there had been major concerns that the two methods being used would be incompatible.

At the height of the construction of the tunnel there were 13,000 workers on the project on a daily basis which made the project one of the largest ever undertaken in modern times. Initially the tunnel is expected to have a life of around 120 years at which point a thorough review is planned and any adjustment will be made. Such was the volume of material which was drilled out of the tunnel that the UK has actually been expanded by 90 acres to accommodate the “waste”.

While the teams on both sides of the tunnel started and finished at the same time, in total the UK construction teams bore out 84 km of tunnel in total against just 69 km by the French teams. The UK project used six of the massive tunnel boring machines whereas the French side decided to use five – and even these were of different design. On average the British workers managed to tunnel around 150 m a week whereas the French figure was lower at 110 m a week, although many put this down to the differing tunnelling conditions.

Interesting facts about the Channel Tunnel

Every 250 m all three tunnels are joined in order to release the pressure which can build up in any of the three tunnels.

The area under the sea is kept cool and dry by five massive pumping stations with one located at either end of the Channel Tunnel and three under the sea. Massive amounts of chilled water are propelled through the tunnel in order to ensure there is no increase in temperature from the engines of the various vehicles passing through.  There is also a massive air filtering system to ensure no harmful fumes build up.

It was revealed that more than 4,000,000 m³ of chalk were excavated from under the sea by the British team of workers.

There have been three major fires to date although nobody has been killed which is surprising when you consider that one of the fires created temperatures approaching 1000°C.

Of the total  51 km length of the tunnel around 37.5 km is undersea which makes it the largest stretch of tunnel below sea level in the world.


The Channel Tunnel for all its faults and criticisms has to go down as one of the major construction projects of the modern day. While there were many problems with the initial figures including underestimation of finance costs, overestimation of passenger numbers, an inadequate safety budget and an extended payback period, the tunnel has changed the relationship between Britain and France forever.

Property investors in the south of England are known to make regular use of the tunnels which has helped to boost what was already a very lucrative second home market in France for British property investors.

3 Responses to “The history of the Channel Tunnel”

  1. Kaylee Dunning

    Good information about the Channel Tunnel. I used the information in my project on the Channel Tunnel.

  2. thanks in foreign language i had to write about this and had to write 2 pages, this helped alot


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