Channel tunnel car prices match ferries: Travellers have choice between quality and speed of rival services as summer peak fare is set at pounds 310

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THE FIRST shots were fired in the battle of the Channel yesterday with the announcement that fares for cars through the Channel tunnel will match existing ferry tariffs.

Tickets go on sale today and the return peak weekend fare in July and August for a car and unlimited numbers of passengers will be pounds 310, pounds 10 cheaper than the peak fare for the two ferry companies operating on the Dover to Calais route. However, the winter fare of pounds 220 is much higher than the ferry companies' because Eurotunnel is hoping people will pay extra to avoid storms.

The Le Shuttle service will start on Sunday, 8 May, two days after the official opening by the Queen and the French president. In anticipation of high demand, Eurotunnel has set the summer fare at pounds 280, rising to pounds 310 on Fridays and Saturdays at peak weekends. In addition, there will be a special two-day introductory fare of pounds 125 return from 5 June to 21 July for travel to France on Sundays and Thursdays only.

Coaches and caravans will not be carried until September because only some of the shuttle vehicles will be ready and Eurotunnel wants to ensure there is room for cars. The separate freight service for lorries starts on 7 March.

The 50km (32-mile) journey through the tunnel is expected to take 35 minutes, with eight minutes being allowed for loading and unloading at each end. Eurotunnel boasts that it will take an hour from motorway to autoroute.

There is no booking available and it is not necessary to pre-buy a ticket, although Eurotunnel expects half its customers to do so. Everyone turning up will, Eurotunnel says, be treated on a first-come, first-served basis although the company may consider a priority scheme for two- or five-day excursion tickets. When the service opens there will be two trains per hour, with a capacity of 180 vehicles per hour, which will increase to three trains in July and four in August. Answering concerns about the possible early rush, Christopher Garnett, the company's commercial director, said: 'That's a problem I'm looking forward to.' He said there will be a dedicated radio station broadcasting information on the delay situation at the tunnel which travellers will be able to receive beyond Maidstone, Kent.

Passengers will travel with their cars in compartments of five vehicles with access to toilets every three carriages; no refreshments nor duty free goods will be available for sale. There will, however, be duty free shops at each terminal.

Graeme Dunlop, chairman of P & O European Ferries, currently the market leader, said: 'We expected Le Shuttle's tourist fares to be pegged at a level very close to our own . . . It is a positive and realistic move by Eurotunnel.'

Mr Garnett said that Eurotunnel would not enter into a fares war with the ferries, although he said in the autumn and winter there might be cheap-fare promotions.

The high-speed Eurostar passenger trains that will link London with Paris and Brussels in three hours are due to start later in the summer. Fares are likely to be linked to those of airlines with heavy discounts at off-peak times.

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