This week in 1875: the Channel Tunnel

First proposed in 1802, then alternately rejected and resurrected over the course of the following two centuries, the Channel Tunnel was back on the agenda in 1875.

And with a recent act of parliament authorizing preliminary explorations, The Engineer turned its attention to the  very practical issue of how a tunnel beneath the channel would be ventilated.

‘No-one  has expressed a well-considered opinion in public as to how the trains are to be propelled, or the ventilation of the tunnel be effected,’ wrote The Engineer. ‘The problem is one of unexplained difficulty, and of the greatest possible importance, for on it hangs the whole future of the gigantic scheme.’

The article goes on to consider the impact on the air within the tunnels of the proposed  target of thirty-six steam trains every 24 hours. ‘We should have per mile per train about 520 cubic feet of carbonic acid gas discharged into the tunnel…if fifteen or eighteen parts of carbonic acid in 10,000 were found in the air of the channel tunnel, passengers would suffer seriously.’

The article sensibly concludes that ‘It will, in our opinion, be out of the question to use locomotives burning either coal or coke and the propulsion of the trains must be obtained in some other way’

Despite these misgivings, exploratory work began on both sides of the channel in 1881, with a 1,893 metre-long tunnel bored from Shakespeare cliff, Dover and a 1,669m long tunnel dug from Sangatte on the French side.

The project was however abandoned in May 1882 in the face of growing concerns that a tunnel would compromise Britain’s national defences. In an 1881 article on the matter, The Engineer warned that ‘The tunnel would leave England at once open to invasion; a hostile force might land near Dover, take possession of the English end of the tunnel and then it would be all up with us.’

It took another century before the Channel Tunnel gained mass support. But even after its completion, the misgivings continued. Indeed, in an article published on 12th May, 1994, just a week after the tunnel’s inauguration, The Engineer drew attention to a Consumer Association report warning of risk of a fire developing in the newly built tunnel.

There have since been three fires serious enough to close the tunnel. In 1996 a fire a fire broke out on a heavy goods vehicle shuttle wagon, and the  tunnel was closed again in August 2006 when a truck  caught fire. The most serious incident occurred in September 2008, when a fire in one of the vehicle trains led to several passengers being admitted to hospital and caused €60 million worth of damage.