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10 Fascinating Facts About the Chunnel

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Before the tunnel in the English Channel was finished in 1994, anyone who wished to get from England to France had to endure a 90-minute ferry ride—even though the countries are separated by just 30 miles across the sea. Thanks to the Chunnel, the trip now takes 35 minutes and carries nearly 50,000 people daily. In honor of its 21st birthday today, here are a few facts about the modern engineering marvel.

1. One engineer was way ahead of the curve—about two centuries ahead.

In 1802, French mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier came up with the idea of a two-level tunnel that would connect England and France. The top level would serve as a passageway for horse-drawn carriages, while the bottom would be used for groundwater overflow.

2. Plans were discussed several more times before the project actually commenced in 1988.

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In 1880, a tunnel more than a mile long was drilled before the project was scrapped yet again. The topic came up again in 1929, but with WWI a not-so-distant memory, England was concerned about a surprise attack by train. To allay those fears, the new plans included sumps on both sides of the tunnel that would allow either country to flood a section of the tunnel. Another concern was that England would become “a holiday resort for hordes of more or less undesirable people, who would introduce foreign customs, deface the countryside and otherwise interrupt English habits of living.”

3. The Chunnel isn’t just one tunnel—it’s actually three.

Two are used for trains, while the third serves as a service tunnel and an emergency escape route. Here's a peek inside the tunnel most people never see:

4. The Chunnel was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and Francois Mitterrand, the President of France. 

The Queen took the Chunnel, while the President traveled from Gard du Nord and met her at the terminal in Calais. The two trains met nose-to-nose, which doesn't usually happen—the computer that prevents trains from traveling on the same track overrode the rule for the occasion.

5. The Chunnel hasn’t been without its problems.

On February 19, 1996, the trains in the Chunnel broke down due to technical problems caused by snow and ice. It took 1,000 passengers about 15 hours to reach their destination. In November of the same year, a fire broke out in the tunnel after a truck caught fire. Service was suspended for six months. Another fire in 2008 lasted 16 hours and injured 14 people.

6. The rubble removed to make the tunnel was turned into a park.

The leftover seven million tons of chalk, rock, and debris that was dislodged to make the Chunnel was deposited to create Samphire Hoe Park, a 74-acre nature reserve in Southeast England. 

7. A Formula One driver raced through the tunnel for charity in 2009.

The stunt made veteran driver John Surtees the first person to drive a car through it. Although “raced” is probably the wrong term—officials made him adhere to a speed limit of 31 miles per hour. Surtees wasn't concerned about his speed, anyway—he stopped several times to gawk, and even got out to sign his name on the tunnel wall.

8. Bicycles, on the other hand, have a long history with the Chunnel.

Construction workers from both sides used bikes to get around while the tunnel was being made. In 1994, a road bike race was held in the Chunnel. And just last year, Tour de France winner Chris Froome rode through the service tunnel, crossing the distance in just 55 minutes.

9. The Chunnel occasionally causes immigration issues.

In 2008, four men managed to gain access through the French side of the tunnel and walked a few miles before a train driver spotted them and alerted the police.

10. One of the 580-ton machines used to drill the Chunnel was sold on eBay for £39,999 in 2004.

The price did not include delivery.

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