Rabies and other early Channel Tunnel predictions
- 5 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
When the Channel Tunnel was under construction, there were some bold predictions about what the consequences might be. Two decades on, how many of them came to pass?
From the start, the project was mired in delays, disputes and soaring costs. But it was able to open in 1994.
"To deliver the Channel Tunnel was actually remarkable," says Ben Roscrow, co-author of The Channel Tunnel Story. "We can't imagine not having it now."
So what did people think might happen after the tunnel opened?
Such was the British concern about rabies-infected animals passing through the tunnel, that it made headlines in the US and elsewhere.
The New York Times, for example, felt the British were "uniquely, stubbornly obsessed by the disease".
So concerned were the British public, that in 1990 the then-government minister Baroness Trumpington addressed the House of Lords about what anti-rabies measures were being taken.
She told the House: "Eurotunnel has implemented measures agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to prevent the possible entry of rabies-susceptible animals while the tunnel is being built.
"Those include fencing, staged security zones, visual observation at openings in fencing and a system to ensure that any animals which are seen in the tunnel are reported."
The electric anti-rabies fences - which proved susceptible to salt erosion - are no longer operational (and have not been for a while).
In spite of this, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says not a single case of animal-to-human rabies had been recorded in the UK since the opening of the tunnel. In fact, the last case where someone was infected in the UK occurred in 1922.
Although Public Health England said it could not comment on whether those initial fears were justified, more recent concerns have centred not on how animals arrive in the UK but how their documents stack up.
Last October, senior veterinary figures warned a relaxation of the Pet Travel Scheme (which included a 21-day rather than six-month wait after a rabies vaccination) had increased the risk of rabies in the UK. Defra maintains the risk of a rabid dog coming into the UK remains very low - once every 211 years, it suggests, with the possibility of a person dying from rabies obtained from a pet once in every 21,000 years.
The word 'Chunnel' would catch on
"Oh yes," says Roscrow, now the publishing director of Housebuilder magazine, "the 'Chunnel'. I'd forgotten about that one.
"I guess when you think about it, 'Channel Tunnel' is not that difficult to say."
But who came up with the word?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that honour goes to a K Howard who wrote in a publication called the Sketch in February 1914: "Another word that will be stolen from me is 'Chunnel'. This, naturally, will be the pet name for the Channel Tunnel when we get it."
And for a while, he was right.
"Are you as dreaded as the Chunnel?" asked Scotland on Sunday in 1994, while the Times in 1998 warned how "Chunnel pay strikes may hit shoppers". A survey of published material shows the word Chunnel reached its apogee in 1992, but then fell out of favour.
But outside of the print media - where Chunnel may have been popular among headline writers for its brevity - the word never really caught on at all.
Certainly, the French didn't opt for Le Chunnel, instead settling on Tunnel Sous La Manche.
Dr Wyn Johnson, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Essex, says: "I knew of the word but I don't think I've ever used it. Perhaps we just didn't need it."
From Napoleon's army to the stormtroopers of Hitler's Germany, the British have long feared a sneaky tunnel invasion.
A report by the War Office General Staff in 1942 acknowledged some remained worried that the "enemy might endeavour to effect surprise... by the construction of a new tunnel". But the fears were baseless. "Even with the most modern equipment," the General Staff told the war cabinet, it would take the enemy "some years" to bore their way across the channel.
Yet despite being dismissed in the 1940s, there were concerns by some in the 1980s that Britain's defensible island status was being challenged by the construction of the tunnel.
The Times in 1987 told how Alan Clark, then junior trade minister, feared the "Channel tunnel would lead to job losses and the risk of foreign invasion".
To most, concerns of an armed invasion through the tunnel now seem absurd. Instead, fears of invasion were replaced with concerns over illegal immigration and terrorism.
Worries over illegal immigration reached a peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1999, the French Red Cross opened a camp at Sangatte to house refugees who were trying to enter the UK through the tunnel, typically by way of a freight train.
In one incident in 2001, about 550 asylum seekers tried to storm the fences and enter the tunnel area. After pressure from the UK, the camp was closed at the end of 2002 and security fencing much improved.
In recent years, the number of people stopped while illegally trying to enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel has varied from about 3,500 in 2011 to nearly 30,000 in 2009, according to the UK Border Agency.
Lunch in Paris?
With journey times from London to Paris taking a soupcon over two hours, the Channel Tunnel opened up the possibility of day trips to the French capital. Perhaps even just for a bite to eat.
Eurostar admits it has no idea of the numbers who make the journey from the UK just to have lunch in Paris.
But there is anecdotal evidence. "I know a few people who have been to Paris for lunch," says Roscrow. "It is an amazing idea still, I think, that you get a train from London and go to Paris.
Before the Channel Tunnel, we never had the destination 'Paris' up there on the timetable board. This is something the rest of Europe is used to - you can board a train in say, Milan, and go to Moscow. But in Britain, this was all new."
Roscrow has himself lunched in Paris, but says people tend to make slightly more of their day trips, usually leaving as early as possible and coming back as late as possible. "If you're going to Paris," he said, "there's a tendency to spend a little longer."
The UK would become more Francophone
There were some who felt a physical link between the UK and France might make Britons feel more European and more enthused about speaking a foreign language.
Has this happened?
No. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of pupils learning GCSE French has fallen from 324,000 in 1994 to 318,000 in 2004 and to 177,288 last year.
This is despite the opportunities for learning French never having been greater, says Prof Charles Forsdick, chairman of the Society for French Studies.
Not only is there the tunnel, he says, but also a string of low-cost airlines offering cheap flights across Europe as well as access to multilingual media from the internet.
"However, this does not seem to have had the impact one might have hoped on the appetite for learning French [and other languages].
"Numbers of undergraduates on specialist French programmes continue to decline, as the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) figures make clear, and this is true also at A-level."
Forsdick, professor of French at the University of Liverpool, would like professional language teachers in primary schools and "an improved public understanding of languages".
"So many people in the UK are anxious because they feel that languages acquired at school do not equip them well for the challenges of travel abroad. This is a fallacy - it is never too late to learn, or re-learn, a language, and French remains an excellent starting point. French is the language of our closest continental neighbour."
Greater 'entente cordiale'
The numbers of British people visiting and living in France have never been greater. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, there are about 17 million visits to France by British nationals each year.
Some of those will include trips by the estimated 400,000 British nationals living and working in France.
The flow works both ways. Although claims London was France's sixth largest city now appear exaggerated, the UK is home to a sizeable number of French people.
But the motives for the population exchange are usually very different. Powered by a growing network of low cost flights to airports beyond the main cities, Britons moving to France are most often seeking a quieter life in the French countryside.
The bulk of French people in the UK, meanwhile, come to London for work.
Different motives, different countries.
But with sales of stilton, real ale and chicken tikka masala on the rise in France, perhaps the two nations are getting just a little closer.