Building the World

Channel Tunnel, England and France

Path of the Channel Tunnel, from

With the Channel Tunnel’s opening in 1994, the environment of La Manche/The English Channel improved greatly. In May 2009, Eurotunnel was awarded the Carbon Trust Standard for commitment to managing and reducing its carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions improved by 45% over a two-year period. Pollution from ferries and airplanes has eased. Passengers ride between city centers of London and Paris, often transferring to Tube or Metro instead of taking a taxi. Commerce increased on both sides of the channel – 10 million tons of freight transit annually. And chic cuisine served on Eurostar during its 2 hour, 20 minute crossing draws passengers to this convenient, pleasant mode of transport. 


One of the earliest mentions of a tunnel linking France and England was by Napoleon Bonaparte who is said to have discussed the idea with Charles James Fox, an English statesman who came to Paris for a meeting. Napoleon envisioned an artificial island mid-channel “to rest and breathe the horses.” (Building the World, p. 761)

La Manche, as it is known in French, is just a bit more than 33 kilometers (21 miles) wide at its narrowest point – the Strait of Dover, or Pas de Calais. The idea of a tunnel may have begun with a proposal presented to Napoleon when he was first consul. But Napoleon was not the only one. In 1803, Hector Horeau designed an “immersed tube,” a pipeline that could be laid in a dredged trench. Thomé de Gamond proposed a tunnel and alternate plans for a bridge.

Subsequent flowering of railway technology gave further impetus to a tunnel. Both the French and the British parliaments authorized preliminary work as early as 1875. In 1876, the goals and agreements were part of the Draft Anglo-French Treaty. Work went as far as sinking shafts on both coasts. But the British War office stopped the project.


The British were skittish about a fixed link. As Lord Palmerston said in 1858, “What! You pretend to ask us to contribute to a work the object of which is to shorten a distance which we already find too short!” And it was Lord Randolph Churchill who, in his 1889 speech before the House of Commons, famously proclaimed: “The reputation of England has hitherto depended upon her being, as it were, virgo intacta.”


Adventure Underground, by Joseph Gies

In the prologue to his 1962 book Adventure Underground, Joseph Gies reported on “Lunch at Luchow’s,” a seemingly incidental event that would have major ramifications on the channel tunnel project. It was November 1956 when Cyril C. Means Jr., then arbitration director of the New York Stock Exchange and later a professor of international law, came for lunch with a friend, Frank P. Davidson. In the course of lunch, the subject of a channel tunnel came up. Because both young men were heavily committed to legal work, they decided to employ a research specialist of their acquaintance, Joan Reiter, to prepare a concise history of efforts to date to build a channel tunnel. When completed, this document was handed to Dean Jay at the 23 Wall Street offices of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York. Jay introduced the document, and its bearer, Frank Davidson, to Thomas S. Lamont, vice chairman and a leading shareholder of the bank. When Lamont took a personal and constructive interest in the project, what had once seemed a nearly impossible dream became a vision.


The Submarine Tunnel Study Group formed in 1957 included five participants:

Channel Tunnel Company, Ltd; Société Concessionnaire du Chemn de Fer Sous-Marin entre la France et l’Angleterre; International Road Federation (Paris office); Suez Canal Company; and Technical Studies, Inc.

The papers of Technical Studies may be found at the archives of Baker Library, Harvard Business School, where further American involvement in the English/French project is detailed. On August 29, 1958, the United States became the first nation to approve support for the project. A presidential determination was signed by the International Cooperation Administration authorizing W.O. Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey to join British and French colleagues in observation and analysis of the channel seabed.

– Building the World, p. 763.


A treaty for construction of the tunnel with a joint operating British-French authority, and building permissions for four companies (two each), was approved in November 1973. Construction started. A mile of tunnel from the English coast was built and is still in use today. But in 1975 Britain again backed away due to economics. When talks of construction revived a few years later, it was with the understanding that the project must be privately financed.

But what to build? There were proposals for bridges, roads, rail options with tunnel and even a bridge/tunnel combo. But the final choice was the design, rendered in 1957-9, by a team headed by Charles Dunn, president of International Engineering Company, a division of Morrison-Knudsen, and supported by Technical Studies. The rail tunnel would consist of three bored, interconnected concrete-lined tubes: two outer tubes, each with a single-track rail line, and a narrower middle tube for use as a service tunnel. Motor vehicles would not drive through but be transported on rail cars thus improving safety. In an additional safety precaution, the service tunnel could be employed as an emergence escape route. This precaution later proved wise.

Schematics of the “Chunnel”, from

In February 1986, British Prime Minister Thatcher and French president Mitterrand signed the Treaty of Canterbury. Five French and five British construction companies supported by three French and two British banks formed the core team. But the cost of building continued to rise and by 1989 it had shot up 40%  — requiring more banks. Finally there were more than 200 banks in the syndication. And because construction decisions had to be approved by 90% of the syndicate, there were delays even once construction got started. The Chunnel (a term coined by Frank Davidson) officially opened in May 1994. Trains began transporting people in September, and vehicles were allowed by March. It was an immediate success: 28 million people and 12 million tons of freight were carried in the first five years.


If construction of the Channel Tunnel had begun in 1959 when Charles Dunn completed the design later built in 1993 after years of political bickering and delays, the project would have cost US$100 million. But when finally built, the Channel Tunnel cost US$15 billion. Are there ways to prevent cost escalations in great works requiring political debate?


Diplomacy was critical to the success of the process. Sir Ivone Augustine Kirkpatrick of England and Ambassador René Massigli of France were co-presidents of the Channel Tunnel Study Group, and helped attract support of leaders of both countries. In present day multi-country projects involving shared resources  and infrastructure, should diplomacy play a stronger role?

Document of Authorization

The Treaty of Canterbury
No. 25792
France and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Treaty concerning the construction and operation by private concessionaires of a channel fixed link. Signed at Canterbury on 12 February 1986.
Authentic texts: French and English
Registered by France on March 16 1988.

France et Royaume-Uni de Grande Bretagne et D’Irlande du Nord
Traité concernant la construction et l’exploitation par des sociétés privées concessionaires d’une liaison fixe transmanche. Signé a Cantorbéry le 12 février 1986.
Textes authentique: français et anglais.
Enregistré par la France le 16 mars 1988.

Confident that a Channel fixed link will greatly improve communications between the United Kingdom and France and give fresh impetus to relations between the two countries.

Desiring to contribute to the development of relations and exchanges between the Member States of the European Communities and more generally between the European States.

Desiring also to permit the construction and operation of a Channel fixed link by private enterprise in accordance with the criteria laid down by the Government of the United Kingdom and the French Government…

Pour le Président de la Republique française:
For the President of the French 

Pour Sa Majesté britannique:         
For Her Brittanic 

 See Building the World, pp 771-804.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Two/Deux: Even down to the detail of “authentic texts” of agreements, how do multi-country, multi-lingual projects give full access to all stakeholders? Economic development, financing, investment and profit-sharing, natural and human resourcing, job training, local business stimulation, environmental considerations, and other aspects affect all parties, but how can all parties be equally included?

Education and Innovation: The Channel Tunnel has set an example worth following. China is building maglev trains in partially-vacuumed tubes. France has long been a leader in TGV. Japan opened a new era with Shinkansen. Should the world consider an International Rail Institute Service Corps where engineers, designers, and chefs, could cooperate to produce the fastest – and most entertaining – rail transport of the future?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

 (* indicates printed in Notebook series)

Abel, Deryck. Channel Underground: A New Survey of the Channel Tunnel Question. London: Pall Mall Press, 1961.

Bechtel Corporation, Brown & Root, Inc., and Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc. The Channel Tunnel: Design and Construction of a Channel Tunnel Recommended by Three Engineer-Constructors. November 1959. A copy of this is available in the Channel Tunnel archives at the Historical Collections, Baker Library, School of Business Administration, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA.

Benard, Andre. “Financial Engineering of Eurotunnel.” In Macro-Engineering: MIT Brunel Lectures on Global Infrastructure, edited by Frank P. Davidson, Ernst G. Frankel, and C. Lawrence Meador. Horwood Series in Engineering Science. Chichester, England: Horwood Publishing, 1997.

Bonnaud, Laurent. Le Tunnel sous la Manche: Deux Siècles de Passions. New York: Hachette, 1994.

Davidson, Frank P. “An Express of the (Near) Future.” Air and Space, December 1995/January 1996, pp. 22-24. Further information on the 1910 invention by Robert Goddard.

Fetherston, Drew. Chunnel: The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel. New York: Random House, 1997.

Gies, Joseph. Adventure Underground: The Story of the World’s Greatest Tunnels. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Harding, Sir Harold. Tunneling History and My Own Involvement. Toronto: Golder Associates, 1981.

Hunt, Donald. The Tunnel: The Story of the Channel Tunnel, 1802-1994. Malvern, England: Images Publishing, 1994.

Lemoine, Bertrand. Le Tunnel sous La Manche. Paris: Le Moniteur, 1994.

Litwin, George H., John J. Bray, and Kathleen Lusk Brooke. Mobilizing the Organization: Bringing Strategy to Life. London: Prentice Hall, 1996. See chapter, “Eurotunnel,” pages 106-128.

Macaulay, David. Building Big. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2000.

Slater, Humphrey, and Correlli Barnett, in collaboration with R.H. Geneau. The Channel Tunnel. London: Allan Wingate, 1957.

Whiteside, Thomas. The Tunnel under the Channel. London: Rupert Hart-David, 1962.


For Eurotunnel website:

For Eurotunnel’s environmental aspects:

For a summary of the Channel Tunnel, visit

For records relating to planning done in the 1950s and 1960s, see Technical Studies, Inc. Records from 1957-1994, Historical Collections, Baker Library, School of Business Administration, Harvard University:

For the American Society of Civil Engineers list of the wonders of the modern world including the Channel Tunnel, see

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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