The ‘Chunnel’ may be the UK’s most famous underwater tunnel, but the British have been trying to dig to Europe since 1880 – and plans still remain for a second Channel Tunnel.The Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France holds the record for the longest undersea tunnel in the world – 50km (31 miles) long. More than 20 years after its opening, it carries more than 10 million passengers a year – and more than 1.6 million lorries – via its rail-based shuttle service.
What many people don’t know, however, is that when owner Eurotunnel won the contract to build its undersea connection, the firm was obliged to come up with plans for a second Channel Tunnel… by the year 2000. Although those plans were published the same year, the tunnel still has not gone ahead.
The second ‘Chunnel’ isn’t the only underwater tunnel to remain a possibility. For centuries, there have been discussions about other potential tunnelling projects around the British Isles, too. These include a link between the island of Orkney and the Scottish mainland, a tunnel between the Republic of Ireland and Wales and one between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Some of these tunnels yet may happen: even the Channel Tunnel built for the railway in the 1980s was the culmination of nearly 200 years of thought and discussion.
At the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s own preference was for a road tunnel, not the current railway service. She liked the idea, some believe, because cars “represented freedom and individualism”.
But Thatcher’s project was considered unsafe, says Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe. It’s one thing to send trains through the tunnel at wide intervals; it’s quite another to allow hundreds of drivers through in an endless stream. Should a crash or pile-up occur 15 miles out to sea, it would be very hard to rescue those trapped in the chaos.
“It was considered not the right thing to do, even though Margaret Thatcher pushed very hard for it,” says Keefe.
The prime minister compromised. “She said, ‘All right, I’ll go along with the safety argument, I’ll accept that, but as technology improves I want a commitment to plan a second tunnel – a road tunnel’,” Keefe adds, paraphrasing. Even when the plans were made and released more than 20 years after the prime minister’s demand, they were still considered too risky. But that might change.
One of the major problems – noxious fumes from hundreds of vehicles – will become less of an issue with the rise of hybrid and electric cars, says Keefe. Safety, too, may be a more minor concern, because autonomous driving technology already allows some experimental cars to pilot themselves along motorways. They could theoretically do the same in an undersea tunnel, potentially reducing the chances of a crash or jam.
f technology does evolve in these ways, then plans for a second tunnel could be revived. “I think it’s highly likely that conversations like this will take place in the coming 10 or 20 years,” Keefe says.
Alan Stevens at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory agrees. He suggests that by the 2030s technology may have reached a critical point.
“You’d have to say only automated vehicles of a certain standard, and ones that could move together – then you’d get a nice flow through your tube,” he says. “It’s certainly something that I think will be thought about.”
The first meaningful attempt to build a tunnel across the English Channel happened much earlier than most people think.
In 1880, a century before the modern project got underway in 1988, work started on experimental tunnels at the base of Abbot’s Cliff near Folkestone. Creating an undersea connection with France across the English Channel was something that had been talked about since the early 1800s, and supporters included Napoleon Bonaparte.
In some places, the men worked with hand tools. But they also had an ingenious contraption with them – a tunnel boring machine. As compressed air in the machine’s motor forced the rotary head into action, tough rock in front would fall away.