Favoured few make the dry run to France: Christian Wolmar joins a select group whose views will be crucial to the success of the Channel tunnel

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The Independent Online
THE Channel tunnel opened again yesterday. Since its inauguration by the Queen and President Mitterrand in May, there have been no passengers, just a few lorry drivers, as Eurotunnel has been busy testing it and ensuring it meets safety requirements.

Now 'Le Shuttle', taking passengers with cars between Folkestone and Calais, has started to run, but for the next six weeks it is only for invited VIPs, some of the company's 600,000 shareholders and the travel trade. If they fail to be impressed, the future of the pounds 10.5bn project will be in doubt, as the tunnel must attract 50 per cent of the cross- Channel car and coach market by 1996 to have a chance of servicing its enormous debt.

Yesterday, there was an assortment of journalists and shareholders on the 10.54 from Folkestone. The terminal, built to cater for 20 million passengers per year, has a ghostly air. On the British side, cars leave England and enter France, checked by French gendarmes and customs before they get on to the trains to ensure they can be driven straight on to the motorway at the other end. In France the process is reversed.

The cars drive on to the double-deck trains through loaders which will need to take on 60 cars in eight minutes to allow the trains to meet their projected 35- minute journey times.

Christopher Garnett, the ever upbeat commercial director on whose shoulders now rests the financial future of the project, stressed that the experience should be 'incredibly ordinary'. He said: 'We want people to feel 'I've just arrived in France; what's all the fuss about?' '

It is a novel marketing ploy, a recognition that the tunnel cannot compete with the ferry 'fun and shopping palaces' that are advertised as part of the holiday. The tunnel, by contrast, is definitely part of the journey, competing only on speed by offering a saving of an hour, motorway to motorway.

Eurotunnel has now realised that it has overdone the no-frills approach. The original idea of a spartan service with no refreshments, duty-frees or food and only a single toilet every three carriages is being changed.

Now there are plans to have people, like ice-cream ladies in cinemas, dispensing drinks and sandwiches from trays, posters and maps on the carriage walls to liven them up and even a tunnel radio station.

The Mawby family from Reading, were very enthusiastic about the journey and, specifically, the technology. Neda, travelling with her husband Terry, and three- year-old Drew, said: 'I thought it might be like a cattle truck but it's much nicer. There's a lot of room to walk around in.'

But as the trip wore on, she started yawning and said: 'My ears hurt a bit. Next time I'll bring some gum. And they must put in some drinks machines.'

The ear problem, experienced by several passengers, is caused by pressurisation of the trains.

(Photograph omitted)

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