Channel tunnel becomes a victim of unrealistic targets: A royal official opening is a false start. Christian Wolmar reports

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THE DAY after the Channel tunnel is officially opened by the Queen and President Mitterrand on 6 May, it will close again. A few freight trains may run in the following days but a fare-paying passenger is unlikely to use the tunnel until June and even then only on a special 'souvenir' excursion.

It will not be until September that the tunnel will open in earnest and the full service for coaches and caravans will not be available until early 1995.

The latest delay was probably inevitable. In 1987, when Eurotunnel was trying to raise capital for the project, the banks refused to accept that it would take seven years to build, including a year from hand-over of the project to the start of commercial operations.

Eurotunnel was forced to allocate only six months for commissioning and that was always going to be unrealistic. It did not allow for any repetition of tests which had either failed or had been only partly successful. For example, between mid-February and mid-March, 30 tests were supposed to have been carried out. But only 18 were successful, necessitating repeats for the others.

Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways, said: 'The rolling stock, let alone the tunnel itself, takes at least nine months from arrival in the yards to commercial operations. That is what British Rail engineers say and the Channel tunnel rolling stock is particularly complicated kit.

'The tourist wagons, which only began arriving in January, have 24 wagons, two loaders and the locomotives, all of which have to talk to each other.'

Most of the incidents that caused the delays were very minor, such as alarm lights showing or tests having to be abandoned because they overran, but occasionally there were bigger problems. The loaders for the freight trains, for example, have props which drop down to support the plate connecting the platform with the train. These are remotely controlled and have not always lifted up with the plate. One Eurotunnel executive said: 'A train pulled off with one of the props down and that caused a lot of sparks.'

Eurotunnel strongly denies that the incident highlighted in Sunday newspaper last year which resulted in several hundred yards of wire being damaged and an insulator being destroyed because of a short circuit caused any delay. A spokesman said: 'This was really a minor incident. Certainly, a lot of wire had to be replaced but the incident did not result in any delay to the programme.'

The project has been plagued with delays ever since Eurotunnel was granted the concession to build the tunnel in January 1986. Unrealistic targets were constantly set and the cost of the project rose from the original pounds 2.33bn to pounds 10bn, much of the increase caused by the extra borrowing resulting from the delays. The original target date for completion of the work which started in December 1987 was May 1993, but this soon began to slip as disputes between Eurotunnel and its contractors, Transmanche Link, (TML) escalated into full-scale war. Sir Alastair Morton, appointed as chairman of Eurotunnel in early 1987, was successful in dealing with TML and persuading the banks to keep faith with the project but tended to be over-optimistic in his assessments of when the project would be completed. The big day was going to be 15 June 1993, then April 1994, while freight services were to start on 15 December last year, then 7 March this year. Now no date has now been given for the start of services after the official opening.

The delays and the threats of bankruptcy have tended to take the gloss off the biggest engineering project ever seen in this country. The tunnel is a historic achievement, linking Britain with the Continent for the first time since the Ice Age, but so far the publicity has been almost universally bad.

This has spurred Eurotunnel to ensure it gets it right at the end. The company is particularly anxious not to start running a service and then have to abandon or curtail it because of unforeseen circumstances. This happened with its tickets, which were launched on 11 January only to be withdrawn on 8 February when it was clear that target dates could not be met. Nor does Eurotunnel want to set any more opening dates unless it can guarantee that it can meet them. 'We don't want to make that mistake again', a spokesman said.

As an exasperated Sir Alastair said last April: 'The Channel tunnel is going to open when it is ready and not before.' That is still the case except, as then, no one knows when that will be.

Leading article, page 15

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