This year marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Channel tunnel, Britain’s first fixed connection to the European mainland since the Channel washed away the land bridge probably about 450,000 years ago. The tunnel was the cause of much celebration. It was to be a gamechanger, cementing our links with Europe and providing a raft of exciting new services with high-speed trains to numerous destinations across Europe. There were to be Nightstar services linking Plymouth with Brussels and Swansea with Paris, and there was talk of trains running from Canterbury to Calais or Lille to Folkestone to allow cross-border employment.
The possibilities seemed endless and exciting, cementing relationships between the UK and its European neighbours. The Le Shuttle car service between Folkestone and Calais was expected to drive the ferries out of business, while the Eurostar train services linking London with Brussels and Paris would similarly end the frequent flights between these capitals. Moreover, freight trains would knock thousands of lorries off the roads, with an expectation that they would carry at least 10m tonnes of goods a year through the tunnel – a tenfold increase on the roll-on, roll-off ferries that were used by railway wagons.
Most of this has not happened. The Nightstar trains ended up being sold to Canada as the idea was killed off by rail privatisation and competition from low-cost airlines. The number of freight trains has not increased because of security and reliability issues, a terrible disappointment. Safety considerations have meant that short, local trains cannot operate through the tunnel, even though they run on the high-speed lines linking St Pancras with Ashford in Kent. Rather than Eurostar passenger numbers reaching 20m by the end of the century, they had barely hit half that prediction by the time Covid hit. The rival ferries and flights have survived.
The roots of these failures lie in the history of the tunnel. Margaret Thatcher, who ended up supporting the concept because she saw it as boosting the concept of the single market, insisted that it should be built by the private sector. This, in turn, meant that the charges to run through the tunnel are very high, limiting its use. Eurostar, for example, is charged about £14 a passenger each way. The safety requirements set out in the legislation to build the tunnel are far too onerous given that there is a third tunnel between the two used by the trains which is possible to access in an emergency.
The tunnel is wrongly seen as a likely target for terrorists, necessitating airline-style security checks for passengers. There is no reason to think that Eurostar is more of a target than, say, the TGV trains going through Alpine tunnels. The idea that explosives could bring down the tunnel is a failure to understand the physics of explosions. Yet, these overly restrictive security arrangements limit the number of destinations for Eurostar and are a barrier to new entrants to challenge its monopoly.
The failure to use the tunnel to its full capacity is, too, a reflection of the fact that both Getlink and Eurostar are essentially French companies with understandably no focus on the British national interest. Indeed, the route to London is treated by the French as if it were a branch line off the main European high-speed network, as illustrated by the cancellation of all services on Saturday because of the flooding of a tunnel on the route. If the route were perceived as it should be – as a key part of the national infrastructure – there would be contingency plans to ensure that services were maintained.
But it is Brexit itself that has proved the biggest failure of the tunnel. If the vision that underlay the tunnel’s construction had been realised, then it would have cemented the links between Britain and Europe. Imagine if, indeed, there had been swathes of commuters using the service daily under the Channel to do jobs in Kent or Pas de Calais. Such cross-border employment has flourished between many neighbouring countries in Europe and has done much to cement international links within the European Union. The bureaucracy and hassle caused by Brexit would have killed off these opportunities for thousands of people. They would have been an important voice in the remain campaign.
Eurotunnel has big hopes of growth, and wants to see rivals to Eurostar launching services. A couple of companies are sniffing around but there are major barriers to overcome. Safety rules that currently only allow 18-coach trains through the tunnel need to be relaxed. The bureaucracy of Brexit is about to get worse with the requirement that biometric identity information and visas will be mandatory for travellers between Britain and Europe. Already, the requirement to get passports stamped has limited the number of passengers who can use Eurostar services, and only a radical redesign of the terminals in Paris, London and Brussels will allow for substantial expansion.
Already it will not be possible to travel directly from Amsterdam to London for at least six months from June as the station there is being rebuilt to cope with full trains of passengers.
Given Brexit is not about to be reversed, there are only thin grounds for optimism, but there is scope for Labour to exploit the existence of the tunnel by encouraging its greater use, whether for freight or passengers. Perhaps it could be the catalyst for a renaissance of the European ideal that, oddly, Thatcher supported precisely because she saw it as cementing the single market. There is scope for Keir Starmer to be imaginative about reversing some of the damage of Brexit through a renaissance of this rather neglected piece of vital infrastructure. A way exists. Is there the will?
Christian Wolmar’s book, The Liberation Line: The Last Untold Story of the Normandy Landings, will be published in May by Atlantic Books