The Channel Tunnel should have made the UK truly European, but it did not. We need to get back on track | Christian Wolmar

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Britain’s first fixed connection with the European continent since the English Channel swept away the land bridge probably around 450,000 years ago. The tunnel gave rise to many celebrations. This would be a game-changer, cementing our links with Europe and providing a series of exciting new services with high-speed trains to many destinations across Europe. There must have been Night Star services linking Plymouth to Brussels and Swansea to Paris, and there was talk of trains linking Canterbury to Calais or Lille to Folkestone to enable cross-border employment.

The possibilities seemed endless and exciting, cementing the relationship between the UK and its European neighbors. The Le Shuttle car service between Folkestone and Calais was set to end ferry operations, while Eurostar train services from London to Brussels and Paris would also end frequent flights between these capitals. Additionally, the freight trains would knock thousands of trucks off the roads, with the expectation that they would carry at least 10 million tonnes of goods per year through the tunnel – ten times more than the roll-on, roll-on ferries used by the railroads. wagons.

Most of these events did not happen. Nightstar trains were eventually sold in Canada, the idea having been dashed by the privatization of rail transportation and competition from low-cost airlines. The number of freight trains has not increased due to safety and reliability concerns, a terrible disappointment. For safety reasons, short local trains cannot operate through the tunnel, even though they operate on the high-speed lines between St Pancras and Ashford in Kent. Instead of Eurostar passenger numbers reaching 20 million by the end of the century, they had barely reached half of that prediction by the time Covid hit. Rival ferries and flights survived.

The roots of these failures lie in the history of the tunnel. Margaret Thatcher, who eventually supported the concept because she saw it as strengthening the concept of the single market, insisted that it had to be built by the private sector. This means that the costs of crossing the tunnel are very high, limiting its use. Eurostar, for example, charges around £14 per passenger per journey. The safety requirements imposed by the legislation for the construction of the tunnel are far too onerous given that between the two tunnels used by the trains there is a third tunnel which can be accessed in the event of an emergency.

Extreme flooding in tunnel used by Eurostar stops trains – video

The tunnel is wrongly seen as a likely target for terrorists, necessitating security checks for both passengers and airlines. There is no reason to think that Eurostar is a bigger target than, for example, TGV trains using the Alpine tunnels. The idea that explosives could destroy the tunnel is a lack of understanding of the physics of explosions. However, these overly restrictive security measures limit the number of Eurostar destinations and constitute an obstacle to new entrants challenging its monopoly.

The failure to use the tunnel to its full capacity also reflects the fact that Getlink and Eurostar are essentially French companies which, of course, are not focused on the British national interest. Indeed, the route to London is treated by the French as if it were a branch of the main European high-speed network, as illustrated by the cancellation of all services on Saturday due to flooding of ‘a tunnel on the road. If the route was seen as it should be – as a key part of the national infrastructure – there would be contingency plans to ensure services continued.

But it was Brexit itself that proved the biggest failure of the tunnel. If the vision behind the construction of the tunnel had been realised, then it would have cemented the links between Britain and Europe. Imagine if, indeed, many commuters used the Channel service every day to carry out work in Kent or Pas de Calais. This cross-border employment has flourished between many neighboring countries in Europe and has done much to cement international ties within the European Union. The bureaucracy and hassle caused by Brexit would have made these opportunities disappear for thousands of people. They would have been an important voice in the Remain campaign.

Eurotunnel has high hopes for growth and wants to see Eurostar’s competitors launch launch services. A few companies are investigating, but there are major hurdles to overcome. Safety rules which currently only allow trains of 18 cars to pass through the tunnel must be relaxed. Brexit bureaucracy is set to get worse with the requirement that biometric identity information and visas will be mandatory for travelers between Britain and Europe. Already, the requirement to stamp passports has limited the number of passengers who can use Eurostar services, and only a radical overhaul of the terminals in Paris, London and Brussels will allow substantial expansion.

It will already not be possible to travel directly from Amsterdam to London for at least six months from June, as the station is being rebuilt to accommodate full passenger trains.

Given that Brexit is nowhere near being overturned, there is little reason for optimism, but Labor has the opportunity to exploit the existence of the tunnel by encouraging its increased use, which whether for freight or passengers. Perhaps this could be the catalyst for a revival of the European ideal which, curiously, Thatcher supported precisely because she saw it as a way of cementing the single market. Keir Starmer can use his imagination to repair some of the damage caused by Brexit by reviving this rather neglected vital infrastructure. A way exists. Is there the will?

  • Christian Wolmar’s book, The Liberation Line: The Last Untold Story of the Normandy Landings, will be published in May by Atlantic Books.

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