Channel Tunnel, Thatcher’s muddle

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Suspension of services notice on the Eurostar website

(click on image to go to the Eurostar website)

If one was superstitiously minded, one might think the BTWT editorial team clairvoyant. On Thursday 4 September, we announced that our services would be temporarily suspended and we carried an illustration of a train stopped by water on the track. A week later, Eurostar announced that the UK’s most famous train service, which normally goes under water, is suspended by a fire in a lorry on the Euroshuttle freight service. Of course, this is only a coincidence.

For 130 years, from 1856 to 1986, the idea of a railway link under the channel was promoted. It met with official hostility and indifference. There were actually two attempts to build the tunnel in 1881 and 1974. The 1881 attempt was linked to Sir Edward Watkin’s plan for a high speed railway route from Manchester to the continent. The 1974 attempt was a government funded project which was still primarily a link between the railways of Britain and France.

BTWT is apolitical and does not care a toss about party politics. However, we do not hesitate to name politicians who play an important role in shaping transport policy. When the idea of building the Channel Tunnel was revived again in 1981, it was Mrs Thatcher who insisted that it’s main purpose was to be a shuttle for road vehicles. The extra size of the tunnel’s main bores, to accommodate road lorries carried on special rail vehicles, added considerable to the project’s cost and complexity. While the tunnel itself received no public funds, two massive motorways, the M20 and M2, were cut through the South Downs to funnel road traffic to the tunnel’s shuttle terminals.

These political decisions left Eurotunnel with a large bank debt and a preference for running its own shuttle services for lorries rather than providing paths for freight trains. An Anglo-French safety commission only allows a limited number of certified railway vehicles to run through the tunnel. The result of all of these constraints, and the withdrawal of UK-French government subsidies, is that the Channel Tunnel’s full potential to carry rail freight has never been realised, and that only a handful of freight trains work through the tunnel.

The total cost of yesterday’s fire in the Channel Tunnel will run into hundreds of millions of pounds. It’s ironic that the three fires that closed the Channel Tunnel (on 18 November 1996, 21 August 2006 and 11 September 2008) all took place in road vehicles, or more specifically the HGV lorries, whose carriage by the tunnel shuttle Mrs T had insisted upon. It’s also unfortunate that Eurostar, the high speed train operator between England and France that has been doing so well, will be taking a hit from a disaster on an operation – the Eurotunnel Shuttle – over which it has no control or influence.

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One Response to “Channel Tunnel, Thatcher’s muddle”

  1. Phil Says:

    Thatcher didn’t want a rail tunnel at all, hence the shuttle compromise. However she was promised that once the rail tunnel was succesfull, a second tunnel with a motorway through it would be built.

    It’s a pity this never happened as the thing would be closed half the time to allow accidents to be delt with. That would highlight the inherent safety of rail.

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