Outlook: Thatcher's legacy for the Tunnel

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The Independent Online
THE SILLY SEASON has arrived early. There are still two months to go before Parliament rises for the summer recess and newspapers are obliged to hunt harder than usual for items to fill their news columns. But already the first story of the season has been spotted and it concerns that hardy perennial, the Channel Tunnel.

According to a front-page report earlier this week, Eurotunnel has begun sounding out the City on plans to build a second "drive-through" tunnel to France. To avoid congestion and the threat of accidents, cars would be electronically routed through on "guided roads".

Alas, the story is not new. In fact it is 12 years' old. Eurotunnel's 1987 prospectus contained a section stating that under the concession agreement it is required to put forward proposals for a second link by 2000. But that is only one small part of the story. It does not have to work up a scheme, much less cost it and find the money. Moreover the drive- through link would only be built if technical and economic conditions permitted and it would not undermine the finances of the existing tunnel.

Finally, Eurotunnel has until 2020 to decide whether to build a second link and, for the purposes of financial projections, it does not have to assume that any such link would be built before the current concession expires in 2086.

Since Eurotunnel is only now emerging from the biggest debt restructuring in British corporate history and since shareholders will not see a dividend until 2006 at the earliest, the idea of a second link seems a rather cruel joke to play on the investment community.

What's more, the idea of a drive-through link was only ever inserted into the original concession to satisfy the train-hating Mrs Thatcher. Even if the engineers could conquer the monumental problem of how to ventilate a drive-though tunnel, would it remotely fit into John Prescott's integrated transport policy? Eurotunnel has one man working very part time on the scheme, which probably says all that is needed. The world's bankers can sleep safely at night for a generation or two yet.