Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
Approval of the Channel Tunnel was meant to be Britain's entry into the era of high-speed rail but today, nearly 20 years on from the opening of the link with France, the UK has only recently committed to high speed rail through the country. Rail has only recently found favour with UK Governments as part of concerted efforts to reduce the nation's carbon footprint, address serious congestion on roads and motorways, and improve services for freight and passengers alike. TunnelTalk reviews recent rail developments in the UK starting with modest celebrations this week in France of the momentous fixed link breakthrough under the English Channel between England and France.
- Twenty years ago this month, on 1 December 1990, tunnellers broke through to create the first tunnel link between England and France. TBM tunnelling for the project had started from both sides of the Channel three years earlier, 1987, and four years later, in May 1994, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and French President FranÁois Mitterrand met in Calais in France to inaugurate the 50.5km long undersea railway connection linking the UK with Continental Europe.
Eurotunnel's Channel Tunnel is set to become the golden gateway to expanding international rail traffic
- At an event this week (Wednesday 1 Dec 2010), organised to mark the historic joining of the service tunnel headings 20 years ago, the emphasis was not on the engineering and tunnel excavation achievements but rather on Eurotunnel as the concessionaire operator of the undersea infrastructure and as provider of the Eurotunnel freight truck and passenger car shuttle trains between terminals either side of the Channel. While excavation of the Channel Tunnel was a saga of financial, structural and technological set backs and triumphs, the operating of the facility, long after the tunnellers had finished their job, is still yet to reach its full potential.
- As Eurotunnel Chief Executive Jacques Gounoun explained in an interview with TunnelTalk, the tunnel is still operating at well below the 1984 prospectus forecasts at just 50% of its full capacity. That traffic includes trains operated by independent freight companies that buy access through the tunnel for their services and the services of independent rail company Eurostar that runs high-speed passenger trains between London's St Pancras international terminal and terminals in Brussels and Paris with intermediate station stops on the high-speed routes in the UK, Belgium and France.
- When Eurotunnel, the service provider, took over from Eurotunnel, the client, and TML (Transmanche Link), the design-build contractors, in 1994, it inherited vast cost overruns (more than double the original £4.85 billion estimate), crippling debt obligations, and a tiny fraction of the concession's traffic forecast.
- When British Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, agreed to construction of the fixed link with France, she said "not a public penny" would be spent on it, not even would the State underwrite the privately secured funding. This was also imposed on the French side of the effort, which was more inclined to contribute government money, and the consequence was much more expensive borrowed money than would have been the case. It has to be said that the actual excavation of the tunnels were completed pretty much exactly on budget and on schedule with delays and cost overruns incurred mainly on installation of the operating systems and on design changes required by the intergovernmental watchdog on the freight and passenger car trains, but expensive borrowings was one of the fundamental contributors to the tough start for the fixed link enterprise that stared into the abyss of bankruptcy on more than one occasion. As well as funds from a large syndicate of international banks and financial institutions (mostly Japanese capital), tranches of private funding was raised via the issue of shares to the general public in Britain and France who were asked on several further occasions to put up more money via rights issues and warrants, all now at a very low value if not rendered worthless by debt for equity swaps and consolidations. On this point, Gounoun is quoted as saying recently: "We should pay homage to the shareholders. They stepped in where the states failed."
- Debt continued to soar even after start of tunnel operations in 1994 with the company caught in the insidious state of borrowing money to pay debt. It was then hit hard by the first devastating in-tunnel fire on a freight shuttle train in 1996 that closed the first third of the running tunnel from France for six months and cost the company more than £260 million in repairs and lost revenue. A second serious fire in September 2008, again on a lorry on a freight shuttle, near the French end of the France-bound running tunnel from the UK closed that section of the tunnel for four months and cost some £185 million in lost revenue plus the cost of repairs for a total of about £230 million.
- After years of battling tough conditions, Eurotunnel proposed and concluded a restructuring in 2009 that rescheduled the mountain of debt through its extended concession period to 2086 and secured a more positive future for the listed company. In 2010, more than 280 trains used the tunnel per day and the opening of competition for train services from Europe through the tunnel into the UK will attract more traffic from other passenger and cargo companies. Full completion of the first high speed rail line in the UK in November 2007 from the Channel Tunnel to the new international terminus at St Pancras in London - something that was promised as part of the original concession plan; something that the French fulfilled with the Route Atlantique from the French portal to Paris; and something that ham-strung the earning potential of Eurostar and Eurotunnel at the start - has proven the catalyst for advancing the development of high speed rail infrastructure and services into the UK.
HS2 proposed routes
- High speed expansion into the UK
In 2009, the then Labour Government of Gordon Brown announced the proposal for a second high-speed rail line linking London north to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In its swingeing cuts to public spending in October this year, the current Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition Government of David Cameron stayed committed to rail projects at the expense of road developments and confirming a spend of £750 million on high speed rail over the next four years to 2014. Following the announcement, three contracts were awarded to begin the planning and design process. A consortium of Mott MacDonald, Scott Wilson and Grimshaw was awarded design of the section from Birmingham to Manchester and Arup will work on the Birmingham to Leeds leg. Arup had already been appointed for feasibility studies for the London to Birmingham line and environmental consultant Temple Group is awarded the contract for environmental assessment of the Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds legs. Early estimates envisage more than 55km of underground alignment on the routes.
- Also saved from funding cuts in the Government's spending review was commitment to the Crossrail project for London and upgrades of the several London Underground tube stations. Crossrail is expected to add about 10% capacity to public rail services through London while upgrade of central underground tube stations is set to add 30% to the system's carrying capacity.
- Contrary to what many may think, Crossrail is not a through-train service. It is a closed infrastructure loop with passengers coming from the west and heading north or southeast getting off regional services at one of the Crossrail interchange stations between terminals at Maidenhead in the west and Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. As part of the spending review, it was confirmed that Crossrail will be delivered a year later than originally planned in efforts to secure value-engineered savings. Opening in 2018 instead of 2017 as planned is expected to reduce the cost from near £16 billion to about £14.5 billion. Some have asked though, are we adding a year to the far end or have we lost a year at the front end? Procurement of Crossrail is said to be still on track, with award of the two main tunnelling contracts for central London scheduled to be announced before the end of this year.
Crossrail - the east-west connection across London
- To help pay for all these rail infrastructure projects, the Government sold off an operating ownership concession of the first high speed line in the UK (HS)1 from London to the Channel Tunnel. Sale of the 108km long asset with the additional international stations at Stratford, Ashford and Ebbsfleet, was announced in June this year and in November the Government confirmed the successful bidder as a consortium of venture capitalists from Canada comprising Borealis Infrastructure and Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. The consortium will pay the UK Government, through previous owner London & Continental Railways (LCR), a sum of £2.1 billion and will operate the line for the next 30 years, opening its capacity to new passenger and freight train operators.
- Currently, the line is used by the Eurostar international and local high speed Javalin trains operated by Southeastern, as well as freight trains from Ebbsfleet marshalling yards. At the 20th anniversary breakthrough celebrations this week, Chief Executive Gounoun of Eurotunnel expressed disappointment at losing out on ownership of the HS1. Eurotunnel had made a bid of about £2 billion - "something that would not have been possible for us some months ago" - and was tipped as the front-runner by financial analysts. In a surprise move it went to the Canadians.
- In other discussions, Gounoun confirmed that Eurotunnel had engaged consultants Maunsell and Scetauroute to prepare a proposal - as required by its 1986 concession agreement - for consideration of a second a drive through link under the Channel to be added to the rail link 'when technical and economic conditions permit'. The proposal was submitted by the 2000 deadline and the French and UK Governments had until the beginning of 2010 to respond. With the existing tunnel operating a 50% of its full capacity "there is considerable room to expand the business without investing in further infrastructure", explained Gounoun who went on to explain that road vehicles on shuttle trains for such a long crossing was still the optimum solution. "A drive through tunnel would have the EU directive speed restriction of 75km/hour and this would make the journey through the 50km long tunnel about 45 minutes. We have shuttles leaving every 10 minutes at peak. These travel at 140km/hour for a journey of 35 minutes on the train and with efficient loading and unloading at either end it is the fastest way across."
- Gounoun commented that the HS1 sale proved that "there are large sums of private money available for investments in these major infrastructure businesses." and that , with no plan to invest in further infrastructure, Eurotunnel is looking to expand its services, especially in the area of freight haulage. In June this year it acquired the third largest British rail freight operator, GBRf, and has combined it with its French rail freight subsidiary, Europorte France, to provide customers with a wide geographic coverage of the UK and Europe.
DB ICE competition at St Pancras
- In a restructuring of its own in September this year (2010) the high speed train service company Eurostar became an independent company, with its own profit and loss accounts and greater control over its destiny. Still owned in the majority share of 55% by SNCF railways of France, 40% by London & Continental Railway (part of the UK Government) and 5% by SNCB of Belgium, Eurostar gained the right to sell through - train tickets, to any destination in Europe that includes the Channel Tunnel trip, but lost its monopoly on passenger services through the link. It is therefore looking to expand its fleet of rolling stock and its network of pathways to other European destinations.
- In competition for both freight and high-speed passenger services, Deutsche Bahn of Germany is a front runner. It already operates freight services into the UK via the tunnel and in October this year, it showed off an ICE train that it would like to see running high speed passenger services through to St Pancras by the end of 2013. Eurotunnel has allowed DB to run tests on the Channel Tunnel infrastructure, including evacuations drills, and are reported to have proven positive.
Eurotunnel and Eurostar companions from the start
- Opportunities for freight and passenger train services throughout Europe therefore seem to be up for grabs at the moment with Eurotunnel in a position to gain substantially as the link between the UK and Europe that it was always intended to be. UK traffic however will remain, it seems, at the mercy of the weather. with Eurostar services were again interrupted by the heavy winter snowfalls experience across the UK this week. Not as badly as they did last December when five Eurostar trains (not to be confused with the Eurotunnel shuttle trains) were at a standstill in the tunnel leaving more than 2,000 passengers stranded for hours until rescued by Eurotunnel emergency services. The trains are said to have been 'winterised' to prevent similar electrical failures due to the cold weather but the volume of snow on the lines caused cancellation of services this week.
- In facing its own demons, Eurotunnel has installed a fire suppressing system in the running tunnels to reduce the damage of its vulnerability to fires on freight shuttles. Gounoun explained that water mist systems are set up in four "stations" in the tunnel, two in each running tunnel to divide the length into thirds. The procedure is for a train with a fire detected on board to travel on to the nearest station where the misting system is not designed to extinguish the fire (the fire responding services are to do that) but to reduce the temperature of the fire and prevent serious spalling of the concrete lining, as happened in the two serious fires experienced to date. Including polypropylene fibres into the concrete of the tunnel linings are said to exhibit spalling resistance of concrete when subjected to the high temperatures of fires under laboratory test conditions and many owners and designers now include the technique in the design of transport tunnels. The concept is yet to be tested in anger as they say, and while the hope is that it never will be, the probability is that it just might.
Eurotunnel back to full capacity after 2008 fire - TunnelTalk, Feb 2009
High-speed rail pitch for the UK - TunnelTalk, Aug 2009
Crossrail management mobilized - TunnelTalk, May 2009
Shortlist for Crossrail running tunnels contracts - TunnelTalk, Dec 2009
London Underground upgrades and expansions - TunnelTalk, Dec 2009
PP fibres to resist fire-induced concrete spalling - TunnelTalk, Nov 2010
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