Vitali inside Eurotunnel 2020

After All: I am not a train – a guided walk inside the Eurotunnel

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

In an attempt to make history, Vitali boards the Eurostar post-Brexit.

“What a world of passengers on our steamer! Princes, dukes, gentlemen, ladies, tailors, milliners, people of every rank and calling, all jumbled together. The power of steam is not confined to material objects... Steam is a great democratic power of our age; annihilating the conventional distinctions, differences, and social distance between man and man, as well as the natural distances between place and place.”

Whereas the second sentence of the above passage could pass for a description of the interior of a present-day commuter train, it is actually the opening of one of the oldest books in my collection, ‘Observations on the Social and Political State of the European People’ by Samuel Laing, Esq., published in London in... 1850 – precisely 170 years ago! Laing then travelled from Dover to Calais on a cross-channel steamer, which was no longer a novelty nearly 30 years after the British-built paddle steamer Rob Roy completed her maiden journey across the Channel in August 1821. Crammed as it sounds, Laing’s crossing was still super-comfortable  compared to the one undertaken by Charles Dickens in July 1837, when, in his own words, he arrived in Calais “a mere bilious torso, with a mislaid headache somewhere in its stomach”.

There must have been a slight improvement in the crossing conditions somewhere between then and 1864, when John Murray in his ‘Handbook for Travellers in France’ noted: “Excellent fast steamboats cross the Channel between France and England; still they are often crowded to inconvenience, and in rough weather passengers are liable to be wetted by the rain or spray. The passengers, especially ladies, should therefore take with them a small change of raiment in a hand bag.”

I also wanted to make history, for myself, at least. As one of the passengers on the inaugural Eurostar train in November 1994, I was now hoping to become one of the first post-Brexit cross-Channel (or sub-Channel) travellers. Due to other commitments, however, I was only able to make the journey three days after Brexit officially happened. But it still felt good to be ‘among the first’.Moreover, my destination was neither Brussels nor Paris, but the first Eurostar stop on the French side – Calais Frethun, just one hour away from London St Pancras.

There are only three Eurostar trains a day which stop at Calais and that is a huge shame, because this formerly British French city has a lot to offer to discerning travellers, and by them I do not mean illegal migrants, who – as the locals would be happy to tell you – are harder to find in Calais than perhaps in any other town in Europe.  

One of the main attractions of Calais is the Chunnel itself, with its massive infrastructure processing 1.6 million trucks, 2.6 million cars and 22 million passengers a year. No wonder the American Society of Civil Engineers listed it among seven engineering wonders of the modern world. It is also home to the world’s largest and longest workshop (nearly 1km long), providing maintenance for the Shuttle and the Eurostar rolling stock. I visited it and can confirm that the workers have to move along its endless platforms on bikes and mini-buses.

Here I have to confess that my short visit to Calais had another potentially history-making purpose. I wanted to become the first journalist to WALK through the Eurotunnel post-Brexit!

That seemingly ridiculous ambition stemmed from my previous visit to Calais about eight years ago, when – after endless security clearances – I was indeed allowed inside the Eurotunnel (though only the service tunnel, on account of not being a train – a point I found hard to dispute) with several other UK journalists. So powerful was the impression that I had dreamed of repeating it ever since.

This time, security formalities took even longer: I had to post a copy of my passport to the Tunnel offices weeks in advance. The Chunnel surroundings were so full of barriers, fences, barbed wire and CCTV cameras (600 of those, as I was told) that they reminded me simultaneously of the Berlin Wall and a Belfast police station from the time of the Troubles. Probably to make me feel more at home, my official escort John Keefe, director of public affairs for the tunnel operator, Getlink, assured me that all the barriers had been made in the UK by a company called Jacksons Fencing.

It was nice to know we were still manufacturing something.

And here we were – on the Calais side of the service tunnel, looking into 31.4 miles of winding dimly lit corridor that ended in Folkestone, Kent.

Accompanied by two security guards (to stop us if we suddenly decided to run all the way to Folkestone?) we walked along the tunnel, with John pointing out a cable monorail snaking above our heads, countless fire hydrants, one of the 35 fire-fighting stations, and ventilation shafts – parts of the sophisticated air-circulation system that could blow dust and fog out of the main tunnel. Having lived in Folkestone for several years, I didn’t feel like running away towards it, and neither, it seemed, did John.

My only regret was that this time we didn’t see a lizard-like yellow STTS (Service Tunnel Transport System) vehicle – a specially engineered rubber-tyred techno-reptile used for maintenance and for carrying workers from one end of the Tunnel to the other, always travelling on the right (even when in UK territory).

Back in the daylight, we stood for some time on a small observation platform right outside the Tunnel’s French portal. Every couple of minutes a Shuttle, a Eurostar or a freight train whooshed past us. I asked John what Brexit would mean for the cross-Channel traffic.

“Brexit is not a barrier,” he said. “It simply means a different approach to the same issues – in short, it’s not a change, but rather a challenge!”

I looked at the gaping black hole of the Tunnel entrance less than 50 metres away. Another Eurostar train was just sliding into it slowly, as if being sucked inside by some invisible and utterly unstoppable force.

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