About this Article
Written by: Michael Chou
Written on: July 1st, 2010
Tags: building & architecture, civil engineering, transportation
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About the Author
In July 2010, Michael Chou was a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering with a biochemical emphasis at the University of Southern California. He hopes to attend graduate school and eventually work in the biotechnology industry. He first became aware of the Channel Tunnel while reading the New York Times bestseller “The World Without Us”.
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Volume XI Issue III > A Railway Under the Ocean: The Channel Tunnel Linking Britain and France
The Channel Tunnel took almost two centuries to come to fruition, but on May 6, 1994, the six-year construction project became the first solid landline between Britain and continental Europe. Since then the tunnel has become a relative quick, yet somewhat expensive, form of transportation for both civilian and corporate purposes. Though it has proved less beneficial economically than expected, the tunnel still remains an engineering marvel of unprecedented ambition, labeled one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1996.

Introducing the Idea

Though we see and use modern engineering constructs such as roads, railways, bridges, and tunnels every day, there are times when these sights leave us awestruck. Looking out the window to see a normal four lane street? Typical. Driving on an overpass spanning an interstate freeway? An everyday occurrence. But traveling over a mile-long bridge surrounded by the ocean? Now that’s a special moment. After all, who can deny that they did not gasp in awe upon seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York?
Though astonishing, these projects have an important yet simple goal in mind: to provide ease of transportation. The Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridge decreased transportation times significantly by connecting two parts of a city separated by a body of water. However, the goals of these bridges pale in comparison to the intercontinental connection of the Channel Tunnel between Great Britain and France.

The Treaty is Signed

As early as the 19th century, British and French autocrats desired a convenient transportation system linking their two countries. Napoleon Bonaparte was even reported to have remarked, “Cest une des grandes choses que nous devrions faire ensemble,” French for “[it] is one of the great things we should do together”, to a British ambassador [1]. Geological surveys on the English Channel soon began – mostly by the French – but proposals did not move forward because of strategic implications on both sides. The British were especially concerned about compromising their natural isolation and defenses.
After World War II, however, the advent of air power convinced both sides to consider a permanent link between the two countries. Thus, detailed exploration of the region’s geology was conducted by the Channel Tunnel Study Group between 1958 and 1960, followed by a larger scale investigation from 1964 to 1965. These studies confirmed tunneling through the lower chalk stratum, a specific layer of geological sediment laid over several million years that is distinctive from those around it, was indeed possible. As a result, Britain and France began drafting a treaty endorsing the construction of a high-speed rail tunnel with a targeted opening date in 1975 [2].
During January of that year, however, Britain canceled its plan to ratify the treaty. Though the Conservative Party-led government had initially agreed to a Parliamentary Bill supporting the project, minimal progress was made because of the Party’s preoccupation with that year’s General Election. Furthermore, the election overhauled control within the government from the Conservative Party to the Labour Party, halting all progress on the tunnel project to the dismay of the French [1].
Fortunately, the newly selected Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was willing to consider proposals for a Britain-France link that did not involve public expenditure. She and French President François Mitterrand opened an “Invitation to Promoters” in April 1985, inviting private companies to submit proposals to a specially established working group by October 31 of the same year [2].