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The Channel Tunnel

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A British- and French-style crossing signal 'green man' exchange places.

The Channel Tunnel is an excellent method of crossing the English Channel without all that tedious mucking about on ferries, and runs beneath the sea between Folkestone, England and Calais, France. Since its opening in 1995, the Chunnel, as it is occasionally called, has become the preferred, if not the cheapest, mode of travel between the UK and the continent.

Travellers in England will note that signs for the departure terminal are clearly given, in both English and French, along all of the approaching motorways and within the terminal itself. This is because the construction and administration of the tunnel is a joint venture between the English and the French. However, English speaking travellers approaching the Calais terminal on the French side, will observe that signs are only in French1. This is supposed to be because the French are trying to preserve the veracity of their language. It is actually because the French are a proud nation who are convinced that it is only a matter of time until French is declared the official international language of the world and their 'world' famous chanteurs, Claude François and Johnny Hallyday, attain their rightful international recognition as world-wide superstars alongside The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

The first attempt to link England and France was started in 1880, but was abandoned by English prime minister William Gladstone when he was advised that the move was a risk to English national security. An initial attempt to get the French and English to co-operate in the venture was abandoned in 1975. Finally in 1986 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President François Mitterand signed an agreement called 'The Treaty of Canterbury'.

Tunnelling began on the British side on December 11, 1987. The tunnel took three years to build, cost £10 billion pounds to build, employed 15,000 workers and cost 10 lives. First contact between the two sides was made in October 1990. Despite removing enough earth to fill Wembley stadium 13 times over, the two tunnels were only a few centimetres out of alignment.

The tunnel is now fully functioning. It extends for 31 miles under the English channel (or the French La Manche depending on your perspective). The deepest point is 114.9m below sea level, compared to the average London Underground depth of 24.38m. There are two main train tunnels, plus a small maintenance access tunnel.

The journey can only be made by train. A special high-speed train called the Eurostar (a development of the French TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse) carries passengers only, while 'Le Shuttle' trains carry cars. Passengers either take the train from London St Pancras International, or drive their own car onto 'Le Shuttle' and remain with their vehicle for the journey. Four cars are sealed into each carriage, the white plastic and chrome interior of which gives one the curious feeling of being locked inside a large, cheap, tumble dryer. It is possible, however, to walk between the hermetically-sealed compartments, for safety reasons. At the press of a large red button the doors whoosh open, with a sound unreassuringly similar to something heard on the spaceship Nostromo in the film Alien.

The passenger train from London St Pancras International to Gare du Nord, Paris takes 2 hours, 15 minutes.

The staff on the train assure passengers that should one or more vehicles in your compartment catch fire, you could watch in perfect safety from the adjoining carriage, whilst listening to the sounds of radio Le Shuttle. This seems unlikely to happen in practice. Despite the selflessness of the French and the manners of the English it could be predicted that in reality all passengers, perhaps reasonably, would be high-tailing it through the hermetically-sealed doors to the most equidistant carriages at speed.

In the event of an uneventful and safe crossing, the passengers shoot blinking into the French countryside after approximately 35 minutes underground. Eurotunnel customers travelling to France encounter 'Cité Europe' a vast modern superstore, full of French food, fashion and wine to tempt even the most thrifty. Travellers to England drive out past a small Elf petrol station.

1The vaguely understandable Tunnel sous La Manche, is abbreviated on most signs to s/s La Manche.

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