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A MONEY PIT CALLED THE CHUNNEL

THE CHUNNEL
The Amazing Story of the Undersea Crossing of the English Channel
By Drew Fetherston
Times 404pp $35

No matter how often you ride the train between London and Paris, you can't help feeling a certain awe when it plunges into that black hole beside the English Channel and glides beneath 30 miles of sea, to emerge, Lewis Carroll-style, in a strikingly different country. The Channel tunnel, in use for the past three years, is one of mankind's most stirring feats. Unfortunately, the Chunnel is also a monument to misguided and mismanaged investment--a financially disastrous pipe dream that probably should have been left to the fantasies of youthful readers of Popular Mechanics.

Would you believe, in fact, that this gee-whiz American magazine is indirectly responsible for the Chunnel's construction? In 1956, the French wife of a well-connected young American lawyer, Frank Davidson, suffered a nasty bout of seasickness on a Channel ferry. Davidson remembered a Popular Mechanics article he had read at age 12 on a 19th century tunneling attempt. Reviving the idea became his passion. A study group he formed of representatives from heavyweight construction companies and finance houses became a major spark, firing up Franco-British interest in a tunnel.

That's one of the fascinating anecdotes in The Chunnel, an impressive study by Newsday business journalist Drew Fetherston of how Europe's most grandiose construction project came to be. It's a story of bungling, miscalculation, and dreadful management, a mess far worse than the negative press of the time indicated. Through interviews with 58 builders and managers of the project, Fetherston reconstructs the deep vein of ill will between the tunnel's owner--Eurotunnel--and the consortium of 10 construction companies that built it.

Eurotunnel is Fetherston's villain, though he is a bit too discreet to say so. Its inexperienced managers second-guess the construction experts and demand changes they won't pay for. They manipulate public opinion, trumpeting minor successes and suppressing bad news in a way that seems unethical--to say the least--for officers of a publicly traded company. Eurotunnel's shareholders, for example, are kept in the dark when an expensive tunneling machine accidentally falls into a hole and must be cut up for scrap.

Fetherston, educated in physics and geology, knows his undersea chalk strata. He provides a deep look into the arcane art of tunneling. And art it clearly is, even at this sophisticated level. When the British and French tunnelers approached each other for their mid-Channel hookup--involving a made-for-TV underwater handshake that added $5 million in unnecessary costs--engineers were biting their nails until the last moment, uncertain whether the teams would meet at the right spot.

A mere 8,300 years ago, no one dreamed of a tunnel, because the Channel didn't exist. Early Europeans wandered on foot between England and Holland. The North Sea gradually flowed in, but it didn't cover much: If the Eiffel Tower were plopped today in the deepest water between Calais and Dover, Fetherston informs us, three-quarters of it would protrude. Choppy waters run shallow, it seems.

Tunneling schemes date back to at least 1715. Teams actually began digging in the 1870s, cutting a mile of tunnel on the French side and a bit more on the British side. But Britons' fears of losing their national moat, as Shakespeare termed it, stopped the diggers every time. During a British War Dept. inquiry on a tunnel in 1881, a lieutenant-general declared that ''a couple of thousand [Continental soldiers] dressed as ordinary passengers'' could launch an invasion via tunnel train. They could even wear their uniforms, he suggested, if they pulled down the blinds.

Just why rugged nationalist Margaret Thatcher, of all people, let down Britain's guard is an issue Fetherston neglects. Most of her advisers were ''either hostile or indifferent to the whole idea of a link,'' he says. Thatcher probably saw the tunnel as a painless way to build ''European'' credentials. Also, she clearly liked the project as a demonstration of private initiative, since all funding was (and still is) nongovernmental. As for the French, their goal was not better transportation but job creation in depressed northern France.

Thatcher, as priestess of self-reliance, wanted a tunnel that motorists could drive through instead of the piggyback train version. The grandeur-minded French didn't want a tunnel at all; they fancied a giant bridge, a far more impressive monument. The final scheme pleased hardly anyone.

The completed Chunnel hasn't pleased its builders or backers much, either. Construction companies lost more than $1 billion on the project. Since the tunnel's opening, it has produced a $3.2 billion operating loss for Eurotunnel. Eurotunnel narrowly escaped bankruptcy last month, when its creditor banks--after two years of tough negotiations--finally agreed to restructure $14.8 billion in debt and accept 45% of Eurotunnel's equity for part of it. Thousands of small investors who bought its stock are unlikely to break even for many years. The shares have fallen 90% since 1989.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that this project never should have been begun. Planes and ferries carried the traffic just fine. Still, the public can thank the builders for creating a relaxed, civilized way to travel. Personally, I wouldn't make the trip any other way.

BY STEWART TOY



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PHOTO: Cover, ``The Chunnel''


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Updated Dec. 11, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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