The Channel Tunnel is celebrating its 30th anniversary, but the first work began in… 1876 – Ouest-France evening edition

Correspondence, Gautier DEMOUVEAUX.

If the Channel Tunnel celebrates its 30th anniversary on May 6, 2024, the project is much older. The first work even began in… 1876! A look back at a sea serpent that almost never saw the light of day.

Thirty years of history and travel. On May 6, 1994, the Channel Tunnel, linking France and England, was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II and President François Mitterrand, after less than seven years of work and the creation of an exceptional work of art. , made up of three parallel tunnels 50.5 kilometers long, including 37.9 km under the sea. This pharaonic project, which cost nearly 15 billion euros, is the result of more than a century of reflection, more than 130 aborted projects and political negotiations!

The first to put forward the idea of ​​a connection between Dover and Calais was the French geologist Nicolas Desmarets, who spoke to the Academy of Amiens in 1751 about the construction of a tunnel. A simple technical fantasy at first, the idea gained ground and it was at the dawn of the 19th century.e century that the first successful project saw the light of day, at a time when progress seemed to be able to respond to all technical constraints.

Read also: In the archives of Ouest-France: December 1, 1990, the Channel tunnel is pierced

Thus, in 1801, the mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier presented to Bonaparte, then First Consul, a project for a drilled underwater tunnel, composed of two superimposed galleries (illustration at the top of the article). The first, paved, must allow the circulation of mail coaches, the second serving to drain infiltration water. The engineer even plans to create, in the middle of the Channel, an artificial island allowing travelers to make a stopover.

On the English side too, we thought about it, and a project for a steel tube placed at the bottom of the sea saw the light of day a year later. But all these ideas were quickly abandoned with the start of the Napoleonic Wars.

Read also: Almost 30 years after its inauguration, the Channel Tunnel is thinking big

The birth of the railway

The industrial revolution, the appearance of the steam engine and the development of the railway will revive this idea of ​​an inter-Channel connection in the mid-19th century.e century. The train arrived at Dover in 1843 and at Calais five years later.

Once again, projects are flourishing again. The most successful is that of the French engineer André Thomé de Gamond. In 1855, he presented a project for a bored tunnel, made up of tubes 9 meters in diameter including a double railway track. Ventilation is provided by thirteen artificial islands, each accommodating an air well.

Thomé de Gamond manages to convince Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, and the two sovereigns give their agreement in principle. Feasibility studies continued but were once again stopped short by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

In 1856, the French engineer Aimé Thomé de Gamond proposed a tunnel between Cape Gris-Nez and Eastwear-Point, with ventilation chimneys in the open sea. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)
Thomé de Gamond manages to convince Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, the two sovereigns give their agreement in principle. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)

First works in Sangatte

It was not until 1876 that the project was relaunched. A year earlier, the Northern Railway Company and the Rothschild Bank created the Undersea Tunnel Company between France and England. The new entity obtains a 99-year concession to dig and operate a railway tunnel.

Geological studies resumed and, on October 21, 1876, drilling of the first well began in the heart of the village of Sangatte, on the French side, in order to study the subsoil.

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In 1876, a first well was dug in the village of Sangatte to identify the nature of the subsoil. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)
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In 1878, work began on both sides of the Channel. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)
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The project fascinates the press, which regularly reports on the progress of the work. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)

Two years later, a second well was dug under the direction of engineer Ludovic Breton. 90 meters deep, this time it is located in open countryside, north of Cap Blanc-Nez, horizontal drilling beginning in 1881, at a rate of 400 meters per month. Across the Channel, work has also been launched, which gives hope for a junction within five years.

However, despite the costs already incurred and the start of the work, the construction sites were abruptly stopped in 1883, for economic but above all strategic reasons: the British general staff feared that such a work would facilitate the invasion of their island in the event of conflict with the mainland.

Read also: Behind the scenes of the Channel Tunnel

After two years of work, only 1,839 meters of horizontal gallery were drilled under the sea on the French side, compared to 2,026 meters on the English side. Although there is not much left of this first attempt, the installations having been demolished at the beginning of the 20the century, the Sangatte exploitation well, although walled up, is still visible today.

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The Sangatte exploitation well. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)
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In 1883, the British authorities abandoned the project, notably because of the reluctance of the English general staff, who feared that the tunnel would make their country lose its insularity. (Photo: DR / Wikimedia)
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After two years of work, only 1,839 meters of horizontal gallery were drilled under the sea on the French side, compared to 2,026 meters on the English side. (Photo: DR / Wikimedia)

New works in the 1970s

Despite the abandonment of the site, engineers continue to fantasize about this connection between the two shores. A year after the success of his metal tower, presented during the Universal Exhibition of 1889, Gustave Eiffel worked on the subject and also proposed his project: an underwater tubular bridge system with resistant metal walls with an inner casing in concrete, placed on support points resting at the bottom of the sea. An idea which will never be realized, just like that, carried by the Schneider company, of a gigantic metal bridge which was to span the Channel at 72 meters at above sea level.

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Other projects were imagined, such as this suspension bridge spanning the Channel, at the beginning of the 1890s. (Illustration: DR / Wikimedia)

The First World War and the economic crisis of 1929 put an end – for a time – to these pharaonic projects which looked more and more like pipe dreams.

It was not until the end of the 1950s that the project emerged from the drawing board. While the foundations of the European Economic Community are being developed, all the lights are green on both sides of the Channel. The Channel Tunnel Study Group (GETM), a Franco-British company, was created in 1957 and quickly presented a project for a railway tunnel designed to pass through trains and on-board vehicles. Faced with this consortium, another company was created: SEPM, Company for the study of a bridge over the Channel.

Faced with these two competing projects, it is up to politics to decide. The verdict fell in 1966: it would be the tunnel, French President Georges Pompidou and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had decided so!

Study work began in 1973 on both sides of the Channel. The tunnel must be completed by 1980. In Sangatte, a new shaft is dug and must serve as access to the tunnel site. But once again, the project was abandoned in 1975, this time because of the economic crisis. Barely more than 300 meters of galleries were dug on the French side, 400 meters on the British side.

Four competing projects

Against all expectations, the project was relaunched at the beginning of the 1980s, by French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who were politically opposed on paper.

Four projects are then presented: that of Europont, which proposes a 37 kilometer tube bridge; that of Euroroute, a bridge-tunnel road complex; that of Transmanche Express which includes a set of four tunnels and provides for the creation of two artificial islands; and finally that of Eurotunnel, bringing together the companies France-Manche and Channel Tunnel Group, which takes over the previous aborted project from the 1970s.

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In the 1960s, the Channel Tunnel project was relaunched. Work even began in 1973. In Sangatte, a new well was dug and was to provide access to the tunnel site. ((Photo: DR))
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In the 1980s, the leaders of the two countries relaunched the project once again. Four files are presented; some take up the idea of ​​old projects with a railway tunnel, others, like Euroroute, propose a mix of bridges and automobile tunnels, all connected by artificial islands. (Photo: DR / Wikimedia)

It is ultimately the latter which is retained by the political authorities. The other projects were ruled out either for financial reasons – too high a cost – or the risks posed by the bridges to navigation in the Channel, one of the densest in the world.

The first sod was given in May 1986, from the wells of Sangatte in France, and Shakespeare Cliff in Great Britain. For six years, 15,000 workers took turns day and night on each side of the Channel; the site was inaugurated on June 1, 1994.

Since then, nearly half a billion passengers have used the Channel Tunnel, either on board the Eurostar TGVs or by taking the Eurotunnel rail shuttles with their vehicle. The equivalent of three times the total population of France and the United Kingdom combined!

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