Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
- Twenty years ago this month, on 1 December 1990, England and France were joined under the sea through the central service tunnel headings of the Channel Tunnel fixed link. Marking that momentous event 20 years on, Eurotunnel hosted a celebration in Calais last week at which the two tunnellers who shook hands for the first time across the French/English breakthrough where on hand to repeat the historic handshake. Philippe Cozette of France held out a hand through the final hand-excavated connection to Graham Fagg, a TBM operator for the UK side whose name was drawn from the hat to be the man of the moment.
An historic handshake of 20 years ago was repeated last week in Calais between former tunnellers Graham Fagg (left) of the UK and Philippe Cozette of France
- During an interview with TunnelTalk, Fagg, a resident of Kent on the UK side of the Channel, explained that he worked not only on the successful privately-funded Channel Tunnel operation of the 1980s-90s, but also on the publicly-funded 1974 attempt that was cancelled by the UK Government because of national economic troubles. He explained he was a fitted on that first attempt working on the team that assembled the Priestley TBM mobilised to excavate the leading drive toward France. On the second attempt he joined the crews as a TBM operator on the Howden machine that was installed in the same abandoned heading of the 1974 operation, once the Priestley machine had been withdrawn.
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- The Channel Tunnel project was not the first undersea fixed link connection or the most difficult. The Seikan under the sea rail link in Japan to connect Honshu and Hokkaido Islands under the Strait of Tsugaru, excavated by drill+blast and completed in 1988, was a magnitude more difficult. But the Channel Tunnel caught the imagination of the world, drew engineers and tunnel workers in from across the globe to contribute to the effort and saw them all disperse again out to tunnelling projects in far flung places. Many, like Fagg, went from Kent to Lesotho in Southern Africa to work on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to channel water from the mountains to the city and region of Johannesburg in South Africa. It is rare to be on a tunnelling project in the world these days and not meet someone with a Channel Tunnel connection.
- Let us know if you worked on the Channel Tunnel and your particular story and memories of that time in your tunnelling career.
- The project also included several benchmarks for tunnelling in the UK and in France. It was one of the early applications of Japanese EPBM technology in Europe with five EPBMs used on the French side of the project through soft water bearing strata. These machines also employed one of the early versions of vacuum segment erectors designed into them also by the Japanese TBM designers.
Geological section of the 53km long Channel Tunnel from portal to portal
- In the UK it was an initial major application of NATM for both the marshalling areas at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff that services the six TBMs that completed the three marine running tunnels and the three landward headings of the UK operation, as well as the huge undersea crossover for the UK side of the tunnel. The crossover on the French side used the multi-drift, presupport method to create the cavern in the excavated core. NATM on the UK side was also used for the rail lines through Castle Hill and also for the highway tunnels to the terminal through Round Hill.
- The project also demanded high speed tunnelling when in geology that would support it. The UK side had the prediction of the better geological conditions and set a minimum advance of 1,000m per month per machine, designing onto the TBMs a system of double erectors to build each ring in the bottom ahead of the erector follow with the crown segments. The lining was also of particular design. There were no tailshields on the machine (until modified to cope better with unexpected water ingress and softer ground than expected) and the precast segments of the lining were erected directly against the ground, pads on the extrados providing the annual gap for back grouting and the possibility of securing the non-bolted ring of segments into place with the wedge key.
- In addition to the technological achievements of the French and UK sides of the project, the undertaking had to deal with perhaps unreasonable contractual issues as well as financial and funding crises. The concession to build the tunnel was awarded to a consortium of 10 construction companies – five in the UK and five in France. The political approach to the effort was then to offer no public support of any kind. It was to be an entirely privately funded and developed undertaking. This put added pressure on the group of 10 contractors to create a 'client' and Eurotunnel was born. Its senior managers travelled the world to secure the capital to finance the construction, most of it supplied by Japanese financial institutions at the time. The set up of an owner by the winning contracting consortium also lead to fierce conflicts at times with court battles about payments and responsibilities.
Howden TBM in manufacture for the UK Service Tunnel heading
Casting of the segments for the UK tunnel headings
NATM cavern of the UK crossover
- All was resolved in the end and the Channel Tunnel – subsequently named Eurotunnel officially – opened to traffic after inauguration by Queen Elizabeth II and President Francois Mitterrand in 1994.
- Troubles did not end there however for the fledgling international fixed link railway company. The horrific fire on the London Underground in Kings Cross Station in 1987 had serious ramification for Eurotunnel when the intergovernmental watchdog insisted on design changes to the passenger car shuttle trains to be operated by Eurotunnel. This was imposed after the start of manufacture of the rolling stock and lead to all sorts of problems and delays and cost overruns. A pricing war with the ferries that serviced the cross Channel routes forced down the price that Eurotunnel could charge for its train crossing alternative further reducing the traffic forecasts for the project, which were in any case highly optimistic from the start. The battle with the ferries included a battle with duty free legislation. Duty free shopping was to be abolished on all cross Channel services, ferries included, when Eurotunnel opened. It wasn’t and holiday trippers continued to use the ferries to buy their duty free on board. Eurotunnel was allowed a shop at the terminals but no duty free sales on the trains.
10 giant contractors – five UK and five French – won the concession to design, build, own, operate and finance the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Eurotunnel the client had to be created by these companies.
- Thing hit a desperate low in 1996 when a flair from striking truckers on the French side of the service landed on a truck on a freight shuttle as it was heading into the tunnel. The fire raged and caused extensive and serious damage not only to the infrastructure of the tunnel but also to the confidence of the public to use the undersea rail link. It took much time to repair the damage and the reputation of the service. A second fire on a freight shuttle train in 2006 was a bitter blow to the business, which again cost it dearly in repair costs and traffic losses.
- Today, the fixed link across the Channel is only used to 50% of its full capacity. The great success predicted for the business model in the planning stages has not lived up to expectations. But Eurotunnel has survived through thick and mostly thin and with recent changed to EU legislation to end the monopoly of Eurostar on the international high speed services through the tunnel between UK and Europe, and the prospect of other European rail companies presenting proposals to run service on the route, the future for Eurotunnel is looking bright. It will take some time however before the provision of a second drive-through highway link under the Channel into Europe will be needed, planned or realised. When that day arrives teams of tunnellers will again gather on either side of the Channel to set out for an undersea connection.
- In the meantime other undersea crossings are in the making and progressing. The most recent win for the tunnelling industry being the recommendation for the immersed tube highway and rail tunnel across the Femern Baelt to link Denmark and Germany. Where some have been, others will follow.
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Vacuum segment erectors - TunnelTalk, May 2010
UK rail Channel Tunnel and beyond - TunnelTalk, Dec 2010
PP spalling resistance of concrete - TunnelTalk, Dec 2010
Femern baelt - TunnelTalk, Dec 2010
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