User menu
Main menu

The Opening of the Channel Tunnel

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 06 May

The Opening of the Channel Tunnel


  -  6thMay 1994  -  


What have the following got in common – the Empire State Building, the Itaipu Dam in South America, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Panama Canal, North Sea protection works in Amsterdam, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Channel tunnel? The answer: They were voted as the modern wonders of the world by the American Society of Engineers. 


The tunnel, that was opened in 1994, was not the first to be put forward. The first was by a French mining engineer Albert Mathieu in 1802. He proposed a tunnel to include an artificial island half way across in order to change horses. Napoleon III, in 1856, William Gladstone, 1865, and David Lloyd-George, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 also brought up the idea. 


On July 29th1987 Margaret Thatcher and President Francois Mitterrand ratified the Treaty of Canterbury that agreed to the building of the tunnel. Later that year in December the first boring took place on the British side. The French started the following February. On December 1st1990 the two tunnels finally met under the channel – 22.3km from the UK and 15.6km from France. The two men who first met were Graham Fagg and Phillippe Cozette who shook hands 50 metres under the sea bed. This was the average depth of the tunnel although it did reach depths of up to 75metres. There are actually three tunnels under the sea – two for trains and a service tunnel for use in emergencies. 


11 boring machines were used, each weighing 12,000 tonnes and as long as two football pitches. One of them is still there and one was sold on eBay in 2004 for £39,999. The tunnel is 31.4 miles long, the 11thlongest in use, the 4thlongest for rail travelers and it has the longest undersea portion – at 23.5 miles – of any tunnel. The overall cost came in 80% over budget at £4.65bn, which would be around £12bn in today’s values. 


On 6thMay 1994 Queen Elizabeth II cut a ribbon at 9.30am at the Eurostar passenger terminal at Waterloo station before travelling to Calais in a first class carriage at the rather sedate pace of 80mph. Champagne was served as the carriage entered the tunnel seven minutes late due to ‘congestion in the South East’, according to British Rail. However, it emerged on schedule. M. Mitterrand did the same at the Gare du Nord before heading North at the rather faster speed of 186mph. At 11.28 the two trains met nose to nose. The two heads of state cut a further ribbon and the Queen, speaking in perfect French said, “The mixture of French elan and British pragmatism, when united in a common cause, has proved to be a highly successful combination. The tunnel embodies that simple truth. This is the first time that the heads of state of France and Britain have been able to meet each other without either of them having to travel by sea or by air.” Despite the way in which Anglo-French relations had“fluctuated violently through the ages”, the tunnel would represent an enduring bond. “The French and British peoples, for all their individual diversity and ages-long rivalry, complement each other well – better perhaps than we realise.”


M. Mitterrand expressed his belief in the tunnel as a monument to European unity – rather ironically. Lady Thatcher saw the achievement in more in technical terms. A French banquet was enjoyed before they boarded Le Shuttle, the train service for vehicles, where the two Heads of State travelled in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Phantom VI in their own garage. The Heads of Government and other VIPs followed behind in a coach. When they arrived in Folkestone, three minutes early, at 2.52pm, they drove through a ceremonial red tape. Another plaque was unveiled and the Queen remarked that, “It had been a Frenchman who first flew across the Channel and a Briton who first swam it. What could be more appropriate, therefore, than a Frenchman and a Briton shaking hands under the middle of the Channel in December 1990."


In the first full year of operation 7.3 million passengers used the tunnel. In 2014 this had risen to 21 million. 400 trains run a day carrying up to 50,000 passengers, 6000 cars, 180 coaches and 54,000 tonnes of freight.


23 years later the tunnel represents ‘Entente Cordial’ at its greatest. How much easier it would have been for William the Conqueror, Phillip II of Spain or Hitler if only the tunnel had been operational then. Our turbulent history with the French has survived many things. Many people blamed the French for the Black Death. There were fears that the tunnel would bring unwanted visitors, many doom mongers predicted the end of ‘Island Britain’. In reality little has changed.


Watch our animated film to learn how you can trial our resources and over 270 films, for two whole weeks!
Watch 50+ video for free
Look for this symbol. Clock here to see all our free video NOW


Recent tweets