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In praise of...

...the Channel Tunnel.

Some of you reading this will remember those crazy days when to get from England to France, and vice versa, you had to take a boat or an aeroplane. Very early in our courtship, artw and I took it into our heads to buy a bunch of European papers one Sunday morning in, I guess, 1991. As it happened, it was the day after the tunnelers between England and France had made contact, deep beneath the Channel. It is amazing how many countries found it appropriate to giggle at the scent of garlic which had, no doubt, been detected wafting northwards through the workings.

Nowadays the tunnel sous la Mancheis well open for business. There are two ways you can use it. If you just want to get on a train in Paris or Brussels, and get off in London (or vice versa) then you take Eurostar. The stations are in all cases decently central (Gare du Nord in Paris, matched symmetrically by Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid; in London it's now St Pancras rather than Waterloo, which is a shade less convenient for my own work, but I recognise that I am in a minority). It's far more pleasant than a plane flight and (if you take into account check-in etc) probably quicker.

The other possibility is to drive your car to Calais or Folkestone (not Dover!) and load it onto the train to whiz under the sea-bed. These trains are about 500 metres long, and the carriages (for cars at least) are double-deckers, so you can work out how many fit on each run. It's actually much more like the old ferries, except that it is a) faster and b) a train rather than a boat. Whoomph! You're underground, in darkness (apart of course from the bright cabin lights in the carriages). Whoomph! You're in England, or France, depending, and just have to remember which side of the road to drive on.

My first memories of both methods are quite special. When we drove to Bosnia from Belfast in late September 1997, we had baby B, then three and a half months old, in our little old Skoda. (We travelled from Kidderminster to Brussels that day, little realising that it would become a regular run for us in the future: then stopped twice overnight in Germany, before reaching Zagreb and then Bosnia.) Poor B reacted badly to the change of pressure in the tunnel, and howled all the way. Of course, 35 minutes is not all that long, but it seemed a bit eternal at the time. (She also reacted badly in those days to Bosnian mountain passes. She grew out of it, and anyway doesn't travel much any more.)

A year or so later, I took a weekend in Brussels to mutually size up a potential employer. I needed to be in London anyway for a funeral, and my prospective boss recommended that I take the Eurostar, declaring that "it is a most agreeable experience". Indeed it was, and this led to a sufficiently good set of first impressions that I ended up working for him for the next three years.

I must say that if I can avoid it I will never fly between Brussels and London again. Even doing it for connecting flights to elsewhere in the UK, my experience has been hellish - I remember one attempt to return from Belfast where I got home ten hours later than I expected thanks to the Curse of Heathrow. Quite apart from the environmental impact, the train is simply a lot more pleasant.

It's weird, though, in a way. I am just old enough to remember the last of the Apollo missions, when moon landings were current affairs and the Channel Tunnel a fantasy. Now it's the other way round.


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2009 12:34 am (UTC)
When my family visited London almost ten years ago now, one of the big things my father wanted to do was take a trip through the Channel Tunnel. As a result, we took a day out of our schedule and went on a particularly exhausting day trip to Paris.

It was definitely something worth doing, but I think in the future I'm not going to go roundtrip accompanied by a jam-packed day and spend less than 12 hours total at my destination if I can avoid it.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
Moon rocks vs. Tunneled chalk layer
Arguably, the Channel Tunnel has already proven more valuable than the Apollo missions.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
Re: Moon rocks vs. Tunneled chalk layer
As a space nut I'll have to disagree. There is a general agreement that the pictures of our little world taken by the Apollo astronauts helped give impetus to the various environmental movements that formed in the 70s.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)
Re: Moon rocks vs. Tunneled chalk layer
You're also talking to a space nut. The samples and the subsequent Helium-3 (and other) lunar material interests would have been obtained within a decade by robotic missions by either NASA or the USSR without Apollo.

The greatest value the space programs have brought to conventional ledgers for most people on Earth have been satellites for imagery and communication - and those were developed without Apollo.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 03:46 am (UTC)
Re: Moon rocks vs. Tunneled chalk layer
Hi fellow space nut! ;)

I'm not convinced on the robotic missions front. It's only in recent times that robotic missions have approached the kind of mobility and perception that the Apollo astronauts had. Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt probably did more science than a hundred robotic probes due the the fact he was a qualified geologist equipped with an advanced sensor (the Mark 1 eyeball) and an autonomous on-board processor (his Brain).

On the satellite front totally agree - much more useful.

However, you're missing my point about the Apollo Earth pictures - I never mentioned lunar samples or Helium-3. The picture of Earth were taken by the Apollo Astronauts themselves, on their initiative. They had a large impact on how everyday people thought of their world. Hardly measurable, but IMHO they had a big impact.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)
Re: Moon rocks vs. Tunneled chalk layer
Fair point on Harrison Schmitt, and on "Earthrise" - and the latter certainly helped boost my profession. However 'awareness raising' doesn't quite enter into the conventional accounting that determines far too many things.

Also, if the criterion for assessing value is changed behaviour, it remains to be seen whether the likes of "Earthrise" will have changed people's behaviours enough on Biosphere 1, or have contributed to both the the volume and speed of change as we are already seeing from the Channel Tunnel.

In the 40 years since Apollo 8 took that photo, we've seen more people expending more terrestrial resources at an even faster rate with looming problems of species extinction at a geologic scale and an accelerated 'greenhouse earth' period.

In the 14 years since the Channel Tunnel began rail operations, we've seen how many millions of passengers and how much freight delivered without fast-ships and aircraft? I'm also amused by the incidental environmental benefits of this change...the Channel Tunnel would have happened whether there was environmentalism or not. ;-)
Jan. 2nd, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
As ex-railway staff I'm in the fortunate position of being able to get cheap fares on Eurostar (though we have the lowest priority for seat allocations, so need to book well ahead of time, and it's easier to get seats when you want on Brussels trains rather than Paris ones), though the basic tunnel toll is inescapable and is, if I remember, about £20 per person each way (to pay the construction costs). Even so, it's a testament to the trains attractiveness that since the tunnel opened I've never been bothered to use my £5-each-way privileges on the P&O Dover-Calais ferries.

The options weren't just boat or plane - I remember taking the old Regie voor Maritiem Transport's hydrofoil between Dover or Ramsgate and Oostende several times in the early/mid-80s, though if I was peckish I'd plan a slower crossing, to use the excellent restaurant aboard their "Prins Filip".
Jan. 2nd, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)
I've used all three methods of crossing over to France, and I still like the ferries best, despite being abominably unwell once (travel bugs are not fun on ferries). My only problem with the Eurostar is that there's no stops except Paris if one is going to France, which is dashed inconvenient if you're heading for Normandy. Although I slowly start to suspect its a Norman conspiracy to prevent people going there.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 07:37 am (UTC)
Jan. 2nd, 2009 07:49 am (UTC)
She has a fair point - not that many of the trains stop at Lille, and it's certainly no improvement on Paris as regards Normandy.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
I gather that one of the next items on the list of LGVs to be built is an alternative faster route from the Chunnel to Paris via Amiens, although that isn't much closer to Normandy.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
This is why I start thinking cospiracy minded thoughts.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 08:33 am (UTC)
Now all we need is a tunnel under the Irish sea - though I think direct Belfast-Brussels trains may be some way off!
Jan. 2nd, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)
It's not that long since the last time there was talk of a Donaghadee-Portpatrick bridge.

Jan. 2nd, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
For the seasick amongst us, it'd be a blessing.
Jan. 4th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
There were some engineers proposing the "Tuscar Tunnel", which would be a rail tunnel from Roslare to Swansea.

It's all rather fanciful, however.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 09:05 am (UTC)
I love Eurostar and would gladly travel that way to the continent any time!
Jan. 2nd, 2009 12:12 pm (UTC)
I've set foot on French soil a few times since 1991 ... but I've never gone via the Channel tunnel, and probably never will. The bloody thing is useless if you don't live in London or the South-East of England; from where I live -- a major regional capital -- to get to Paris by train involves 5 hours to London, a half-hour on the tube, and then the chunnel. Or I can fly, in 1 hour.

Until we fix the UK's decrepit rail backbone, the tunnel is not at optimal usage. I want to be able to get on a TGV in Edinburgh and step off it in Paris -- then we can say we're part of the continent!

Oh, and it killed the big hovercraft. Humph.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC)
While I will never fly again to London if I can help it, that certainly doesn't apply to anywhere from Lancashire/Yorkshire northwards; as you rightly say, the pain of getting to and from London by train certainly kills the comparative advantage. (Unlike the longer distances in France.)

However, it's no longer a half-hour on the tube, since the St Pancras terminal opened!
Jan. 2nd, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
From my house in Manchester, I can be in central Paris in about 5 hours by train, or something similar by air.
Jan. 2nd, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
*giggle* Darn you, now you've got me thinking of the general theme of the Channel Tunnel as it's been present in my own life.

Actually, quite a pleasant rumination. Thanks for taking the time to mention your own!

Crazy(and making little choo-choo train noises in the corner, nevermind her...)Soph
Jan. 3rd, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
I've had reasonable experiences flying BXL to London City and vice-versa with Flybe -- both airports, not being London Heathrow, struck me as pretty efficient and quick to get out of.
Jan. 4th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
I once read a book about the construction of the Channel Tunnel. There were about 50 pages on the civil engineering but more than 200 pages on the financial engineering. The bankers and accountants who organized the funding for the project surely deserve a monument.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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