On 6 May 1994, Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand performed the official inauguration ceremony for the Channel Tunnel, a two-bore rail tunnel connecting Britain with France under the English Channel. Since then, passenger trains have run high speed services between London, Paris and Brussels, and motorists have been able to use a motorail service to transfer cars, buses and HGVs through the tunnel in 30 minutes. All very impressive. But what does all this have to do with roads?
The answer lies in the Channel Tunnel being a private enterprise, selected to provide a fixed link across the Channel by the French and British governments. Before the Euro Tunnel consortium was selected there were a number of other bids, all promising a different form of crossing.
Some offered routes across for road and rail - one of them providing four parallel tunnels. One, EuroRoute, proposed something so unbelievably grand that its architectural drawings could be easily mistaken for posters for a long-forgotten fifties sci-fi movie. This page tells the story of that unsuccessful bid.
EuroRoute was one of about four leading consortia that submitted a proposal to the British and French governments to build the fixed link across the Channel. It was composed of some of the most high-profile institutions of any of the consortia, including big names like Alsthom, Associated British Ports, Barclays Bank, British Steel, BT, GEC and Trafalgar House, among others. Its plan was valued at around £6bn in 1985 prices, and by the deadline of October 30th had secured some £7.2bn in funding - giving a substantial contingency fund and making construction of the link possible.
The plan included a fixed link for both road and rail across the channel, with a two-track railway and dual-two-lane motorway connecting to the existing transport networks at either side of the channel. The rail link was very similar in design to the one in existence today, running in a tunnel between depots at Folkestone and Sangatte.
However, the idea of a road tunnel the length of the Channel was unappealing (despite one bid proposing it) - traffic emissions and the sheer length were thought to make twenty miles an uncomfortable distance. To solve the problem, EuroRoute proposed the crossing be made in three stages, with a central tunnel 21km long and two cable stayed bridges at each side, the three structures connected by two artificial islands.
EuroRoute proposed that almost all the crossing be built in pre-fabricated sections, to be built at locations around the UK and France, regenerating many of the run-down industrial areas and not coincidentally providing plenty of work for steelworks and shipyards owned by companies like Alsthom, British Steel and ABP.
A Cross-Channel Road Link
EuroRoute's publicity describes a drive across the Channel in detail. The journey would begin on the M20 (then under construction), with motorists exiting the motorway and passing through toll facilities ("speeded up by computer") at Farthingloe. There would be the opportunity to pre-pay for your journey at service areas on the approach.
A dual-two lane motorway (with full hard shoulders from here to Calais) would then descend into a conventional bored tunnel, emerging from the cliffside onto a spectacular cable-stayed bridge about 8.5km (5 miles) in length and fifty metres above sea level. Of course, motorists driving in the opposite direction would literally enter Britain through the White Cliffs of Dover, travelling from the bridge directly into a tunnel through the chalk.
The bridge would end at an artificial island, where the motorway would widen to dual-three lanes and descend in a spiral beneath sea level at a gradient of 3.5%. The island, and therefore the spiral, are said to be over 200 metres across, and therefore "somewhat wider than Trafalgar Square".
The next section would be a 21km (13 mile) tunnel, carrying dual-two lane carriageways in parallel. The tunnel would be of immersed tube construction - prefabricated sections being placed in a trench on the sea floor and then covered over. The tunnel would carry traffic safely beneath the main shipping lanes through the Channel, the islands at each end marking out the edge of the lanes, and a third artificial island in the centre for a ventilation shaft which would improve lane discipline among sea vessels.
The tunnel would end at another artificial island, virtually identical to the first, where the motorway would widen again to dual-three lanes and climb in a spiral to a height of 50 metres above sea level. Both islands would have unused space around the spirals, as they would be protected by a ring of concrete caissons, and so exiting the motorway would be possible at both. EuroRoute proposed not just parking, fuel and refreshment facilities, but also leisure facilities, duty free shopping, hotel complexes and marinas.
From the island, another identical cable-stayed bridge would travel the remaining 7.5km (4.5 miles) to the French shore, with the road connecting to Autoroutes in the vicinity of Sangatte. Customs formalities would be streamlined to only occur in the country you are entering - meaning you could mingle with French citizens who have never left France without having to leave the UK.
The Rail Tunnel
EuroRoute's rail link is surprisingly similar to Euro Tunnel's existing route. It travels in a tunnel between the current terminals at Cheriton and Sangatte, linking directly with UK and French rail networks. It too was to be twin-tube with a central maintenance shaft. However, in construction, it has several vital differences. A bored tunnel would carry the twin-track line from Cheriton to the foot of Shakespeare Cliffs, and from that point the route would be in an immersed tube, built in the same way as the road link from pre-fabricated concrete sections. It would run parallel to the road link across the full width of the Channel, with access to the ventilation shaft midway. At Sangatte, the line would run in cut-and-cover for several more miles before connecting to the existing French rail lines.
However, the plan makes no mention of rail investment on the British side - suggesting that non-stop passenger trains have the ability to use both overhead power supply in France and through the tunnel, transferring to BR's third rail system to London. The continental gauge (used for freight) would be able to travel through the tunnels but would have to terminate at Cheriton, with cargo then transferred to British gauge rolling stock there.
It goes without saying that EuroRoute did not get selected and their Buck Rogers plans did not get beyond the drawing board. But the question must be asked why this is so. In many ways, the crossings promoted by EuroRoute were not only more useful to more people than Euro Tunnel's plan, they were also much more economically friendly. The company estimated that it would create 75,000 jobs for prefabrication and construction work alone. And best of all, it would not cost the taxpayer a penny.
Wondering whether EuroRoute would have, in hindsight, been a more successful project (considering the debts that Euro Tunnel now suffer) is not as ridiculous as it seems either. Research at the time suggested that 52% of people would prefer to drive across, and that motorists actively disliked the idea of putting their car on a train to cross the Channel. Feelings were even more polarised in France. And of course, EuroRoute was quick to poke fun at its rail-only competitor with the footnote "A shuttle service would require additional time for waiting, and loading and unloading. EuroRoute does not".
The reason for the rail-only choice remains unclear. Perhaps the road link costing three times the price of the rail tunnel had something to do with it - making the rail option seem a safer deal. But with hindsight, perhaps a road crossing would now be subsidising the railway. Or perhaps the link would have attracted no additional traffic and would now be struggling with four times Euro Tunnel's debt. Now, we will never know.
Ed Bennett found the First Report from the Transport Committee (Session 1985-86), called CHANNEL LINK, and adds the following:
"I've just finished reading the main Report (the minutes of evidence and appendices are over 200 pages in a separate volume), and the reasons EuroRoute was not chosen were onefold: they thought that EuroTunnel would run on budget. Whoop de do. However, that's probably not entirely their fault, as they complain bitterly throughout the report that they did not have sufficient time to investigate the report. There is also a slight bias against a road tunnel due to the recommendations of an earlier report, conducted in 1981/82."
So much for optimism!
You can read more about EuroRoute in the promotional booklet, "EuroRoute: You Drive All The Way". It's scanned in full colour and is available as a PDF file below.