The Channel Tunnel’s 20th anniversary on May 6 received scant attention. There was barely anything in the British press and the only two interviews I did on it were, interestingly, for German and Russian media suggesting there was more recognition of the anniversary abroad than in the UK.
That is a shame because building the tunnel was a massive achievement, this nation’s biggest ever engineering projectthat has never received the recognition it deserved. Indeed, while in engineering terms it has undoubtedly been a great success, in terms of transport it has been only a moderate one and in the crucial aspect of public perception it has largely been a failure.
There is much that is inexplicable about the tunnel’s history. Just as I find it hard to understand why all three parties – and the Tories in particular – are so committed uncritically to HS2, historians are undoubtedly bemused that it was our most Europhobic prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who pushed through the decision to build the tunnel. Moreover, she was forced to accept that it would be a rail-only tunnel, despite her unaccountable disdain for the railways given she was brought up in a town, Grantham, with remarkably convenient connections to London. So a Europe-hating rail sceptic (though she did reject attempts to privatise them) was responsible for building a rail tunnel under the Channel linking us with France, an irony to be savoured by historians.
She did, though, rather vindictively ensure that the tunnel was hamstrung from the start by her decision to insist that it had to be built with private money with no government support. This was actually not only deeply dishonest, because there were various hidden subsidies for the scheme, but resulted in the project’s financial difficulties in the early years which set the tone for the public’s perception. All the early publicity focussed on the debt owed by Eurotunnel to its bankers, an amount that could never be conceivably paid off and was eventually all but written off. Eurotunnel was a financial basket case and that gave rise to much adverse sentiment.
There was a more practical result of the financial situation caused by Mrs Thatcher’s insistence on private funding – the cost of travelling through the tunnel was much higher than it would otherwise. This was reflected not only in the cost of Eurostar tickets, but most particularly in terms of freight which has been the key disappointment of the operation of the tunnel. While the freight shuttle services have done relatively well, the annual amount of railfreight on through trains has barely ever exceeded the levels which were carried in the old Cross Channel ro-ro train ships. Moreover, levels have fallen recently with the amount being carried being just 1.3m tonnes in 2013, less than half the peak amount achieved in the late 1990s and less than fifth of expectations. Unreliability following the fire, the high cost and the reluctance of French unions to relax their protective practices have all contributed to this failure.
Eurostar, too, greatly underperformed. While the estimates used to justify the construction of the tunnel suggested that15.9 million people would use Eurostar in the first full year, in fact the number turned out to be less than a fifth that total, just 2.9m. It was until last year that the figure finally reached 10m making 20m in all if car and coach passengers travelling on Eurotunnel’s shuttles are added in. While these are significant numbers, they remain a great disappointment the tunnel’s promoters and original supporters.
The reasons for Eurostar’s failure to match expectations are variously given as the unforeseen competition from low cost airlines, the various fires and operating difficulties in the tunnel – all reasonable part explanations although it is impossible to dismiss the notion that the original estimates were far too optimistic.
It is perhaps more difficult to pinpoint precisely why the tunnel has not caught the imagination of the British people. One personal bugbear – and I must have travelled through it around 100 times – is the sheer banality of the experience. The Eurostar journey is marred by the fact that out of St Pancras, the first sight of landscape is Barking and the Rainham marshes, so one misses out all the exciting parts of London because of the decision to build a huge tunnel under London as a result of opposition to a surface railway (one can see the same process occurring gradually with HS2). There is no sense of a real travel experience as, apart from a few attractive view of Kent and the odd nice part of Northern France (rare), the best bit is going faster than the cars on the parallel motorways. Taking the Shuttle is the dullest experience in the world, having to sit in or next to your car for 45 mins in an enclosed space with no shopping facilities and a kind of official reluctance to allow you to move at all around the train. It certainly does nothing for the soul! My own personal beef has always been the fact that there is no sight of the Channel as one approaches the tunnel from either side as a result of the need to dig deep beneath the chalk.
Perhaps the public’s view of the tunnel was affected, too, by the fire in November 1996 which resulted in extensive damage and it was not until six months later that full operation was able to recommence. There have been two other significant fires, although thanks to the existence of the service and emergency tunnel between the two main running tunnels, none of these incidents resulted in any serious injuries, demonstrating the safety of the system. There have been several other breakdowns, notably the failure of multiple Eurostar trains which caused chaos in the run up to Christmas 2009 as a result of the train’s inability to cope with heavy snow fall at high speed.
The onerous requirements of safety, seemingly justified by the lack of casualties in these incidents has also limited commercial development of the tunnel. The most disappointing aspect is the fact that there are no local trains between Kent and the Nord-Pas de Calais running through the tunnel which, consequently, has restricted its economic impact on its local economies. Eurostar, too, has been unimaginative in developing new routes, hampered by the onerous security restrictions imposed by the Government such as insisting on fenced off areas where trains are stored and border controls at stations, all of which add considerable cost. While Deutsche Bahn has periodically expressed interest and even ran an ICE train through to St Pancras to show it could be done, its plans for starting services have been postponed with no precise planned date.
Whatever the reason, the tunnel has not been the game changer that had been expected. It may have been called the ‘fixed link’ but it has not resulted in British people feeling any more European as demonstrated by UKIP’s success in the recent elections. We may have a fixed link but we are still not quite European. I will end on a sacrilegious thought – would it have been any different if cars could simply have driven through? I am sure you can guess my answer but others may think differently.
Time to end cr#p on the line
One of poor old Bob Crow’s bugbears about the railways was the issue of toilets which give out directly on to the line. There are still around a fifth of trains used on routes requiring toilets have no retention tanks and it is high time they were phased out. It is in fact quite a deterrent for young people thinking of a career in the railways. Brought up in a world with all mod cons including central heating and en suite bathrooms in every hotel room and even many student halls of residence, they tend to be more fastidious than us old crusties and therefore the prospect of working in piles of excrement is not an attractive one.
The problem, of course, has been who pays for it. There has not been a coordinated policy to ensure that retention tanks become universal and the opportunity to write such specifications into franchise agreements has been lost. Individual train operators like Abellio have sought to fit tanks on some of their stock though ultimately the bill falls on the Department for Transport.
Money should not be a great issue. We are not talking billions here, only a few million. Simple adaptions can cost as little as £20,000 per vehicle with the more difficult ones being around £70,000. However, there are technical issues with a few classes, such as Pacers, which should be phased out anyway but none are insuperable.
Salvation is possibly at hand with the phasing out of trains that are not accessible to ‘people of restricted mobility’. However, there are still issues to be resolved and there is no central driving force behind the plan. So here’s a good policy for all the parties in the next general election – no more poo on the tracks! It’s an obvious one for the Rail Delivery Group to, euh, deliver on.