Channel Tunnel

Channel tunnel breakthrough

Exhibition Centre 1 December 1990As the date of opening the Channel tunnel services approached in the early nineties, those of us who worked at the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre recognised a transition from the concept to the realities of the transport system. The Channel tunnel was potent as symbol of many different characteristics of the late eighties: understanding the European Union, brash private sector management, Thatcherism.We had a series of breakthroughs as the tunnel boring machines emerged from their nine kilometre journey from Dover to Folkestone and, although these wese mostly of engineering significance, each was a good excuse for a party. I will always think of the Folkestone portal, the Holywell Coombe section of tunnel, as the underground setting of one such laser-and-music show.

But 1 December 1990 was an important stage-managed breakthrough of joint Anglo-French significance. For the first time, the two teams of construction workers would meet under the Channel. Some people even imagined that they would not! The emphasis was, quite rightly, on the two engineers and their hand-shake. What I remember most from the underground coverage is the blast of wind hitting the two flags as the air pressure equalised. With my Mother and Father as guests, we watched on large screens at the Exhibition Centre in Folkestone. [see photo]

Eurotunnel Breakthrough Commemorative Medal
Eurotunnel Breakthrough Commemorative Medal

Whatever perspective people held before construction was underway in 1987, the breakthrough was a major step in Britain’s relationship France and, indeed, with the rest of Europe. It was also a powerful message that this engineering project could be turned into the reality. They did have their own set of difficulties but it was not due to the tunnelling that the opening to services was delayed through 1993. Robin Gibson, who was a fresh-faced BBC Radio Kent reporter twenty years ago, has been doing a series of local television programme short and grudging items about the tunnel breakthrough this week. This type of coverage can be contrasted with the documentary on French television.

Documentary from France 5

TML Contractors Breakthrough Meda
TML Contractors Breakthrough Meda

The photograph also shows Sarah Craig (McCullough) who, along with Lucinda Campbell-Gray and myself, made up the teachers on the education team. We worked with a fine bunch of people at the Exhibition Centre, and the wider public affairs team, lead by Tony Berkeley (Gueterbock), which included Claire Whiddon’s talented design team. Between us we interpreted and visualised what all the muck-shifting, concrete-laying and the big train-set would mean in years to come. We understood the operational service would become more prosaic than the fanciful notion of travelling with ease under the Channel. The Eurotunnel and Eurostar services are almost taken for granted now, but the memories of that breakthrough moment will remain with us.

See Channel Tunnel Curriculum Development Project
BBC On this day

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Update June 2014

Twenty years on
There is a short and readable review of the twenty-year anniversary of the Channel tunnel by Christian Wolmar, called “An engineering succes but not a European game-changer” here >

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