Under the English Channel — After three years of sweat and toil, Philippe Cozette tunneled into history one wintry day in 1990, using a compressed air drill to power through the last chunk of chalk marl separating undersea tubes extending from the shores of Calais in France to the white cliffs of Dover in England.
When the Frenchman reached through the hole to shake hands with his English colleague Robert Graham Fagg on the other side, the two countries were physically linked for the first time since the last Ice Age.
The Channel Tunnel — or Chunnel as it’s affectionately known — opened four years later on May 6, 1994.
The world’s longest undersea passageway at 32 miles in length marked its 15th anniversary as a dazzling engineering feat that is finally turning a profit following years of crippling losses. And, while tucked away out of sight, it has become a monument to the possibility of change: After centuries of rivalry and warfare, France and England have become partners in a successful enterprise that has changed the face of Europe.
“We don’t have the same way of doing things, but little by little we got to understand each other,” Cozette said, talking about the French and English work crews — but making an observation that could very well apply to the two countries as well.
Cozette was able to make the transition from construction worker to engine driver when the Chunnel opened, but was laid off along with 900 others in 2005 when the tunnel operator was near financial ruin.
He may have lost his job, but he’s still proud of the tunnel.
Inside, the tunnel is a dark, silent and lifeless place. Even animals don’t venture inside. An immigrant who entered from the French side in April was found dead just 5 miles from Calais.
When no train is zipping by, the only sign of life is the water that seeps through the chalk marl, leaving a white, salty dusting on the gray concrete. Fluorescent overhead lights dispel some of the gloom, illuminating miles of pipes and cables.
But the Chunnel has boosted economic life on both sides by improving trading links, galvanizing tourism, and also changing mentalities. Britons have cast aside their island mind-set to warmly embrace the chunnel, overcoming decades of resistance from British military officers who viewed the project as a national security breach that could tempt foreign invaders.
Once this belief faded, physical differences between the two national railway systems had to be worked out — but those adjustments were minor compared to the mental and cultural changes required to make the old enemies partners.
“I like to say the English Channel is 20 miles wide and 1,000 years deep,” said Stephen Clarke, the English author of “A Year in the Merde” and other best-sellers about French life.
“It shows how close and yet so far apart we are. The tunnel has scythed through all that, it’s just become so easy to nip back and forth.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers recognizes it as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
“It’s humbling,” said Henry Petroski, chairman of the ASCE history and heritage committee. “When it was under construction I took a tour and got a sense of the complexity and scale of it. The project goes back centuries — they started digging once in the 19th Century — and to persevere for so long, over generations, makes it terribly significant. The obstacles were not just technical but political and financial as well.”
But engineering success does not guarantee financial performance.
Once the tunnel opened, the company formed to operate the undersea link lurched from crisis to crisis, dragging down thousands of small shareholders, some of whom had invested their life savings in what had been dubbed the “construction project of the century.”
The tunnel’s operator, Eurotunnel, earns revenue from Eurostar, which pays to operate trains under the Channel, and from its own shuttles, which charge a fee to transport cars, camper vans, motorcycles, buses and trucks between France and England.
The tunnel opened a year late in May 1994, having cost about twice as much as original 4.9 billion pound forecast.
Once the banks were trapped by huge costs overruns, they transferred a significant part of their risks to poorly informed individual shareholders, according to Laurent Vilanova, a professor at Lyon University in France.
“The project should never have been financed by small shareholders,” he said. “They didn’t understand what they were getting into.”
Eurotunnel’s original shareholders lost as much as 90 percent of their original investment.
Chief Executive Jacques Gounon is credited with masterminding the financial turnaround since taking over in 2005. He negotiated a deal that halved Eurotunnel’s debt and rescued the company from bankruptcy. But the operation heavily diluted Eurotunnel’s existing shares, which account for 35 percent of the new company, Groupe Eurotunnel SA.
Gounon said the May 6 anniversary celebration was slated to be subdued.
“We will be modest, economic,” he said. “I think saying that there are no more financial problems at Eurotunnel and to vote the first dividend in the company’s history — that’s enough to mark the 15th birthday.”