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Two Centuries Later, 'Chunnel' May Come True

December 29, 1985|Betty Ann Kevles | Betty Ann Kevles writes a science column for The Times' View section and is an editor for the University of California Press.

With something like the reliability of Halley's comet, plans to construct a "fixed link" (a tunnel, bridge or some combination of the two) across the 22 miles of water that separate Britain from France have appeared at regular intervals.

As far back as 1881 tunnelers began digging beneath Shakespeare Cliff near Folkstone and at Sangatte near Calais. They had progressed 1,800 meters by 1883 when Sir Garnet Wolsley, commandant of Dover Castle, persuaded the Board of Trade to stop. He feared a French invasion.

The pattern has been consistent since then: Tunnel promoters have presented ever more up-to-date plans using faster and safer machines at intervals usually less than 10 years. Since the development of caissons to combat the bends during construction of a tunnel underneath the Hudson River in the 1880s, the technology has been available for the task. Completion last year of the Seikon Tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido--a distance two kilometers longer than the proposed channel link-- proves that length alone is no impediment. It never really was. The real problem has been British reluctance to give up being an island.

Only 10 years ago excavations for a channel tunnel were halted again after diggers had proceeded 200 meters from both sides. The English even left a $550,000 state-of-the-art tunnel boring machine to rust when a change of government led to a change of heart. The French could do nothing but groan when the Labor government killed what has been dubbed the "chunnel" project, opting instead to build the Concorde. But both governments now support the linkage and are expected to approve a plan by February.

Today the Conservatives are in power in Britain and in France a Socialist government reigns. Yet the government of Margaret Thatcher and the regime of Francois Mitterrand have something in common: their political survival. With unemployment high on both sides of the channel, national elections in the offing, no awkward international conflict to muddy the water and cross-channel traffic increasingly bottlenecked, both Thatcher and Mitterrand stand to benefit by what would be the biggest European construction project of the century, employing thousands of French and British workers. Sleek tunnels carrying France's super-fast TGV train from Paris to London in three hours would be a tangible sign that Britain is, at last, literally part of the Continent.

Unlike the Seikon Tunnel, or other modern giant engineering projects, the channel connection is to be privately financed. Banks and investment houses will take all the risks and acts of both parliaments will prevent a political sea-change from halting construction. Governments, however, will play a crucial role, smoothing the bureaucratic waters and helping the promoters to acquire land through the European equivalent of eminent domain.

Four proposed schemes have met French and British requirements. If originality and style were the grounds for deciding, it would be a close call between one called Euroroute and another called Eurobridge. Both proposals include suspension bridges for motor vehicles. Estimated at a construction cost of $6.7 billion, Euroroute has the backing of both of Britain's private auto clubs. A four-lane bridge at Dover would lead to an artificial island five kilometers off the coast. Here, motorists would leave the bridge, following a spiral road down into a tunnel in the channel floor. After a 19-kilometer drive through the tunnel, motorists would emerge onto another island five miles from the French coast, and would then proceed onto a 7.5 kilometer bridge to France. Estimated driving time: 30 minutes. Each of the twin islands would have restaurants, shops and service stations. In addition, Euroroute calls for a deeper, bored tunnel for trains.

Eurobridge, the most expensive plan at $8.4 billion, would soar across the entire channel 70 meters above the high-tide level. It would be constructed of a synthetic fiber called Parafil, six times lighter than steel but said to be as strong. It would have the longest spans of any bridge in the world, supported by six towers strategically placed outside the water traffic lanes. The bridge would carry 12 lanes of road on four different levels inside a tube made of a corrosion-proof concrete to protect drivers from the winds. And like Euroroute, Eurobridge would bore a separate tunnel for trains.

Another proposal, the Channel Expressway, a bargain at $3 billion, projects twin subsurface tunnels, each with a diameter larger than any tunnel ever built. Each tunnel would hold two traffic lanes with a railway track embedded in one roadway and a shoulder occupying the other. The plan calls for halting road traffic once an hour to allow a train to pass.

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