First lorries go under the Channel

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THE LORRIES were gleaming, the drivers handpicked for coping with the world's press and all the customs officials seemed to have been banished. The Channel tunnel was at last open, even if it was only for a group of freight hauliers being carried free.

A year late, the first lorries rumbled onto the inaugural shuttle service from Folkestone to Calais amid optimistic forecasts from Eurotunnel's commercial director, Christopher Garnett, about capturing 40 per cent of the cross- Channel lorry market by 1996.

The first lorry driver, Roy Clementson, who works for the Kent- based Laser Transport International, made all the right noises about the advantages and speed of the service. But others were less sure.

Adrian Caseley, whose Murfitt's lorry was carrying empty pallets to Germany, said he'd rather have been on the ferry: 'At least if something happens, you've got a chance to swim for it. And you can wander about. I spend enough time cramped in my cab.'

The journey was smooth and quick - 80 minutes is the promised time from motorway to motorway - and the Club Car, in which lorry drivers will be given a free hot meal once the service is properly up and running, is very comfortable. However, drivers complained that their ears popped as the train entered the tunnel and it became uncomfortably hot.

By yesterday evening about a hundred lorries had been carried through and the freebies had ended. The hauliers were given a reduction on the pounds 390 one-way ticket, and Eurotunnel had its first revenues towards the pounds 10.5bn construction and financing cost.

There will be one train carrying 14 lorries per hour, five days a week between 8am and midnight until July, when a 24-hour 'turn up and go' service will start. By the autumn, three trains an hour will each carry up to 28 lorries.

In July, the first tourist shuttles - again only for invited groups - will run, as will the first Eurostar trains linking London with Paris and Brussels.

While the tunnel may increase understanding of each other's culture between Britain and France, there is a long way to go. Yesterday, a tabloid journalist, unused to the bilingual expressions used in the Franglais world of Eurotunnel, asked why there was a 'chef de train' on the train when no hot food was offered.

(Photograph omitted)