It is 30 years since I had a chat with John Major in the bowels of a freight Shuttle hurtling under the Channel on the opening day of the tunnel. There were numerous contradictions about its conception and those have continued to hamper its progress which, in many ways is a great disappointment.
For a start, it was very strange that a Eurosceptic Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, should have initiated the project. But she was in many respects a visionary, so unlike the petty Tory politicians of today. She saw it as historic citing, in her speech at the ceremony for the signature of the Canterbury Treaty in 1987, ‘I hope this time that we can rise above the hesitations of the past, that we can grasp the excitement of this project and the scale of the benefits which it could bring to both our countries and to Europe as a whole’. She was no Brexiteer as she was a strong supporter of the Single Market and thought that the tunnel would help cement it.
There were two important aspects of the tunnel which she supported but she only got her way with one of them: she wanted it privately built and preferred a road tunnel. The latter was in fact impossible. Different versions including a design combining bridges with tunnels, but none of these were workable given the difficulties of ventilating a 50 km long tunnel or putting up huge but vulnerable structures in the world’s busiest shipping lane. A tunnel, therefore it had to be and that meant trains rather than cars and lorries.
But she did win her battle over ensuring that it was funded by the private sector. Well, sort of. There were all kinds of hidden subsidies such as banking support and, most important, the guarantee that a set number of train paths would be paid for by British Rail earmarked for freight services that never materialised. No matter. Eurotunnel pocketed the fees which ensured the viability of the project. Well, again sort of. It was touch and go at times whether the tunnel would go the way of the HS2 section between Birmingham and Crewe and it was only the negotiating skills of the brilliant Alistair Morton who kept the project afloat, a stress that killed him long before his time. Gosh I bet HS2 Ltd wish he could have been in their hour of crisis.
The fact that it is a private sector project with lenders who need a rate of return and ultimately to be repaid, has resulted in the very high charges for tunnel users which, in turn, has reduced the number of potential users. And this continues, given there is still £3bn of debt.
And then another initial mistake in the tunnel was the stringent security and safety arrangements. The tunnel is seen as a particularly vulnerable target for terrorism, necessitating those utterly excessive security checks for passengers. It is unclear why Eurostar should be more of a target than, say, the TGV trains going through Alpine tunnels or indeed our own InterCity services. The idea that explosives could bring down the tunnel is a failure to understand the physics of explosions. Certainly an attack could cause a lot of deaths but the solidity of the tunnel would not be compromised. Yet, these over restrictive security arrangements limit the number of destinations for Eurostar and are a barrier to new entrants to challenge its monopoly.
So are the safety arrangements. Trains have to be capable ofbeing separated capable of being s;plit in two and run as two independent 9 carriage sets, a ridiculous requirement that has never been – and will never be – used as evacuation would be much safer through the third tunnel that runs between the two running ones. This requirement is not only onerous but limits the type of rolling stock that can be used in the tunnel and consequently, together with the high access charges, has meant that it is impossible to run local services between say, Folkestone or Canterbury to Calais or Lille services which would have provided local connections and made commuting possible between the two counties, cementing the relationship between the two countries.
And that has been the most damaging failure of the tunnel. If only the tunnel had genuinely linked the UK better with its European neighbours, Brexit would not have been possible. Brexit, therefore, is a product of the compromises that forced the tunnel to be a huge clunky structure difficult to access and therefore which has failed to inspire the British people to be more European.
There is, too, a little mentioned aspect of the tunnel which contributes to its. You never see the sea while approaching it from either the British or French side. That takes away from the import of the journey, a historic link between Britain and the Continent. Instead, it is just a tunnel.
Now, 30 years later and with Eurotunnel rather strangely called GetLink (it’s a corruption of Groupe Eurotunnel with the addition of Link) given it is a French company, the tunnel must reinvent itself in order to reach its potential. Technically there could be up 1,000 trains per day, with some upgrading of the electrical supply but it has never reached more than 400 and mostly it is far less than that.
I have just been at the dinner to mark the 30th anniversary at a swanky hotel/restaurant in Lille (there are compensations for this job) and the mood is surprisingly optimistic for expansion, despite my efforts to pour cold water on the optimism. There are two big potential areas for growth as the shuttle service is already at 70 per cent capacity: railfreight and high speed trains.
Railfreight has been the biggest disappointment of the performance of the tunnel. Far from being far greater than the level that used to go in the ferries catering for railway wagons, there has been a decrease. Onlhy a million tons annually goes through the tunnel on freight trains, just 10 per cent of the planned level.
There is a solution at hand. Eurotunnel has 37 daily paths for the classical line through Kent and on to Wembley – HS1 has few paths for freight and they are mainly taken up – which cannot be used because the gauge is not European standard. Eurotunnel has long pressed Network Rail to invest to bring the line up to standard, arguing that there would be a huge demand from services from the Continent which currently stop at Calais where the freight is transferred to road, However, under current practice Network Rail have insisted that a diversionary route would also have to be created. Eurotunnel is convinced that if Great British Railways were in charge, then it would make such a strategic improvement happen,
The other potential growth area is new operators to rival Eurostar. Two companies, Evylon and Heuro have recently come forward with plans to provide services, but there are major obstacles. First, the rules about only allowing 18 car trains which can be split would have to be dropped. Then generic trains, certified to run across many parts of Europe, could be deployed. Then the trains would have to be sourced a lengthy process, and then all the immigration and customs facilities would need to be provided. Nevertheless, Eurotunnel is optimistic that at last there are hopes of a rival to Eurostar able to use the currently spare capacity in the tunnel. Frankly, it has taken 30 years to reach a usage level of less than 50 per cent and given the environmental case for increased rail use, and the popularity of train travel, maybe there are grounds for optimism. And it may all bring us closer to Europe and who knows, encourage us to rejoin.
Mystic Wolmar’s tries again
Well it was Mystic Wolmar’s usual patchy performance last year for his 2023 predictions, though at least some were spot on.
1) The strikes will continue through to Easter and will only be resolved with an improved pay offer and obfuscation on productivity improvements – hmm, half a point for this….they are partly resolved but mostly because the conditions were removed from the deal
2) Great British Railways will be quietly killed off though a new strategic body will be set up with its HQ in the Midlands. Well another half a point. GBR is on life support and there remains questions over whether it will ever take up the offices in Derby, a prediction which helps to get the half point.
3) There will be a reshuffle and Mark Harper will not survive the year as Transport Secretary as Rishi will not be able to survive the appalling May local election results. Boris, though, will not return. Well half for Boris, but wrong about Harper, though God knows why since he has zero interest in any of it apart from tech
4) The Labour party will, after much hesitation, produce a document on a vision for the railways based on renationalisation. Nul points – the Labour party has failed to come up with a post election strategy
5) Attempts to close ticket offices will fail because of the complexity of the system which much be addressed first. One point. Spot on.
6) Passenger numbers will recover to pre Covid levels when the strikes are ended even though commuting will be far lower because leisure travel will continue growing. Hmmm, half a point – they have recovered in some parts, but taking out the Elizabeth Line, only to 78 per cent across the board
Well a rather generous 3 points…. 50 per cent. Watch out for next year’s predictions, probably not until Rail 1001 as there will be much else to say in the 1000 special issue.