Origins of the Channel Tunnel, 1957-1987

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BNP Paribas Historical Archives

BNP Paribas Historical Archives

On 29 July 1987, François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher signed the treaty between Britain and France that authorised the building of a tunnel underneath the Channel. Shortly after World War II already, innovative projects saw the light in which the ancestors of BNP Paribas participated, culminating with the Eurotunnel project in May 1994.

A bridge across the Channel ?

In December 1960, SEPM (Société d’études du pont sur la Manche) was founded, sponsored by major banks like Banque nationale pour le commerce et l’industrie (BNCI) and Crédit lyonnais. The aim was to build a complete link, in other words by rail and road, between France and Great Britain.

The first project in July 1961 proposed a 33 km bridge, consisting of 10 traffic lanes of which 2 would be rail.

Bridge project presented by SEPM - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
Bridge project presented by SEPM – BNP Paribas Historical Archives
Model of the first bridge project presented by SEPM at Children Fair (1963) - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
Model of the first bridge project presented by SEPM at Children Fair (1963) – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

With competition from other projects, SEPM in 1963 proposed a new version of the project, this time for a “bridge-tunnel-bridge”, inspired by work in Chesapeake bay in the USA. An overall structure of 36 km would be built, consisting of two artificial islands of 2 km, linked to the coasts by a 7 km bridge and to each other by a 7 km tunnel. The islands would be equipped with service stations, leisure facilities like restaurants, a hotel and a beach, and a heliport.

The "bridge-tunnel-bridge" project presented by SEPM (1963): the tunnel - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
The “bridge-tunnel-bridge” project presented by SEPM (1963): the tunnel – BNP Paribas Historical Archives
The "bridge-tunnel-bridge" project presented by SEPM (1963): the artificial islands - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
The “bridge-tunnel-bridge” project presented by SEPM (1963): the artificial islands – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

Or a tunnel instead ?

At the same time, in July 1957, the Groupement d’études du tunnel sous la Manche presented a rail-only tunnel project, supported by pioneers in the field of large projects, like Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez, Rothschild, BNL and lastly BNP.

The 39 km tunnel consisted of 2 galleries and one service gallery. To operate it, besides the usual train transport of passengers and goods, a shuttle consisting of special carriages with side doors were planned for individual vehicles, lorries and coaches. This project soon won the favour of engineers and governments: the bridge lived on!

The rail-only tunnel project - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
The rail-only tunnel project – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

But financing problems forced the banks to withdraw and London decided to end the project in January 1975.

The bridge is back

It was only in 1981 that French minister Michel Rocard restarted the process, joined later by the British.
In December 1984, the French-British consortium 1984 Euroroute was founded. The project was based on a rail and a road link, following the “bridge-tunnel-bridge” principle already proposed in 1960.

BNP Paribas Historical Archives
BNP Paribas Historical Archives

Made up of financial companies and enterprises such as Paribas, Barclays, Société générale and Compagnie générale des eaux but also Usinor, Alsthom and General Electric, the company worked with Ifremer for the environmental aspects, and CEA for safety issues.

The road connection consisted of cable-stayed bridge that links the coasts to the artificial islands in the Channel. A large spiral on each island would take vehicles down to the 21 km tunnel underneath the water. All kinds of tourist services would be set up on the islands. The rail connection, which consisted of two tubes beneath the Channel, would be reserved for direct passenger and freight trains only.

"Bridge-tunnel-bridge" project, presented by Euroroute : The French island from the bridge - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
“Bridge-tunnel-bridge” project, presented by Euroroute : The French island from the bridge – BNP Paribas Historical Archives
"Bridge-tunnel-bridge" project, presented by Euroroute - BNP Paribas Historical Archives
“Bridge-tunnel-bridge” project, presented by Euroroute – BNP Paribas Historical Archives

The tunnel wins

Opposite this consortium, the competitor FranceManche proposed a dual-purpose rail tunnel for fast trains and shuttles. With the banks BNP, Indosuez, Crédit lyonnais as well as Midland Bank and National Westminster Bank as shareholders, the project was closely associated with renowned building companies like Bouygues or Spie Batignolles.

The group presented its project which was basically the one that we know today, i.e. a 50 km tunnel of which 37 km is underneath the sea. Built only for rail, it had two tunnels for traffic and a central tunnel for ventilation, a vehicle boarding platform on specific platforms, and double-decker trains.

The cost estimate for this tunnel was below that of the Euroroute project.

In January 1986, François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher announced that they had chosen the FranceManche project. The building of the tunnel could finally start.

BNP Paribas Historical Archives
BNP Paribas Historical Archives
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