May 6 1994: the day the Chunnel opened


While riding the Chunnel train is on my bucket list, I have certain misgivings about being in a train roughly 150 feet below the bottom of the English Channel. Yes, the idea of it is incredible, and it’s not surprising that the Chunnel — a.k.a. Eurotunnel — is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. At the same time, seeing those black holes boring into the earth at Folkstone, and knowing you don’t see sky again until France… well, I find it a bit daunting. (And I’m not the only one.)

Though it sure beats the idea Albert Mathieu, Napolean’s engineer, had in 1802: he wanted to build a tunnel for horse-and-carriage travel, with huge ventilation chimneys stretching up above the water. Thankfully, the plan went nowhere.

In 1880, a Colonel Beaumont actually dug a mile-long tunnel into the Channel, but eventually gave up.

Around this same time, London was starting to build tunnels under the Thames. The first one — it was the world’s first underwater tunnel — opened in the city’s east end in 1843. Others were built later in the century and into the next. Some were for foot travel, others for cars, and many were for trains, especially the tube. It was only a matter of time before that engineering knowledge and technology would be applied to the English Channel.  

While the Chunnel is probably the world’s best known ‘super tunnel’, in fact, the longer and deeper Seikan Tunnel in Japan could be considered more of an engineering feat: it is 330 feet below the seabed and 790 feet below the surface of Tsugaru Strait. To be clear, however, more of the Chunnel’s track is technically under water, making it truly ‘the world’s longest underwater tunnel’.

History Channel documentary  This well-done documentary (back when the History Channel made good documentaries) takes you through the history and construction of the Chunnel, even touching on the politics between England and France. (44 min, 59 sec)

London’s first Thames tunnel  This is a video of a walking tour through the tunnel completed in 1843. It’s especially interesting when the guide goes into detail on working conditions for builders, at 1:42. (6 min, 18 sec)

The world’s top 10 underwater tunnels  I love short top-10 lists, and this fits the bill. It even comes with jaunty, kind of mismatched but still interesting music (there’s no voice-over). (2 min, 1 sec)

When England and France meet in the Chunnel construction  This includes live footage of the moment on Dec 1 1990 when English and French construction workers come together below the English Channel. (6 min, 53 sec — fast-forward to 1:30)

The tire-changing scene in 28 Days Later  I had to include it — an absolute nail-biter. Lesson: Never go into a tunnel during a zombie apocalypse. (2 min, 42 sec)

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