Shuttle fulfils a deep desire

Will Bennett hears cross-Channel travellers explain their preferences
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The Independent Online
At the clinically clean Eurotunnel terminal near Folkestone yesterday, vehicles drove quickly and efficiently on to the box cars ready to take them on a journey which, for centuries, was the stuff of travellers' dreams.

Thirty-five minutes later, they emerged in France, the gap between motorway and autoroute narrowed to less than many a London underground trip, and with little perception of actually having been on a journey.

This is exactly what some travellers have been waiting for. For years, Margaret Cook worked in a seafront hotel in Eastbourne, Sussex, but could not even look at a heavy swell in the Channel without feeling seasick.

Now retired, she and her husband Ken regard the tunnel as a liberation from the restrictions imposed by her complete inability to travel by sea. Yesterday they were off to Paris with their friends Roy and Sheila Hampton.

They were on a coach trip to Paris - which cost them pounds 69 a head for the return trip plus two nights in a hotel - but, along with many other tunnel and ferry users yesterday, price had not been the factor deciding which route they took.

Mr Hampton, also from Eastbourne, had worked on cross-Channel ferries for 16 years.

He said: "The reason I wanted to go through the tunnel is that it is a novelty. I still like the ferries, but this is something different."

The terminal building for Le Shuttle has the soullessness of a dreary London suburb shopping centre and is rarely crowded because most people drive straight on to the train. But David and Carol Millard could not have cared less.

The Millards, from Corsham, Wiltshire, were starting out on a long drive to Italy for a holiday and wanted to get to the other side of the Channel as quickly as possible before their sons Peter, nine, and Alan, seven, became bored.

Mr Millard, an electronics engineer, said: "The attraction is partly the speed but also the tunnel is new, so we wanted to try it."

Nobody could ever describe Dover as clean and clinical, although efforts are being made to brighten up its seafront. But sprawling underneath the famous white cliffs and the enormous castle, it remains essentially a scruffy working port.

In the terminal building a Japanese student sat exhausted and sad eyed. A Spanish couple who had lost their luggage complained loudly while, outside, a ferry captain reversed into his berth with practised ease.

Michael Joyce, from Ports-mouth, was on a coach trip to Spain with his wife, three children, several of his daughter's friends and enough luggage for an army.

While the prospect of such an expedition did not daunt him, the idea of taking it through the tunnel filled him with a sense of dread. "I wouldn't feel happy in the tunnel - it doesn't seem safe to me and if the ferries put their prices up high, I would fly," said Mr Joyce.

A group of Norton motorcycle owners bound for bikers' rallies in Belgium and Italy had thought about going through the tunnel but, in the end, it simply did not feel right.

As they fixed the wiring on one of the elderly bikes, Jeremy Nicholls, from Portsmouth, explained: "I love the boats and the tunnel wouldn't have seemed like starting on a proper journey."

The battle for custom between the tunnel and the ferries has been presented as a price war, but it is more than that. The rivals also have to pander to people's instincts, cope with their prejudices and overcome their fears.