Functional face of Channel terminal: Jonathan Glancey casts an eye over Eurotunnel's Folkestone gateway and laments its lack of flamboyance

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The Independent Online
'WHAT]' exclaimed Lord Palmerston when Parliament was presented in 1858 with a scheme for a Channel tunnel. 'You pretend to ask us to contribute to a work the object of which is to shorten a distance we already find too short?'

Attitudes towards the Channel tunnel have softened since then. Even Queen Victoria was amused by the idea ('if it can be accomplished, I will give it my blessing') but it took until December 1990 for French and British engineers to shake hands as they met half way under what the British call the Channel and the French la Manche.

Yesterday, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, hopped into the cabin of a Eurotunnel locomotive simulator and was spirited along from the newly completed tunnel terminal at Folkestone to its French sibling, 30 miles away at Calais.

Yesterday's festivities at Folkestone were not, however, to celebrate the launch of either the car and lorry ferry trains - these are due to start running in December - nor the 187mph Transmarche Super Trains (TMST) that will link Waterloo and Gare du Nord in three hours from Easter 1994. Mr MacGregor was inspecting the terminal facilities.

Exactly when tunnel services will begin depends on the settlement of a dispute between Eurotunnel - the private consortium that will operate the tunnel until its lease expires 55 years from now - and its contractors, Transmarche Link, over cost (currently pounds 8.1bn) and handover date.

However, Mr MacGregor was able to imagine himself rushing through the 7.6 metre diameter tunnel at the roll-on-roll-off train's top speed of 87mph with 24 ferry wagons and 800 passengers in tow.

The TMSTs will run through the tunnel at 100mph before accelerating to their maximum cruising speed of 187mph in France; on British rails they will be sandwiched between vintage commuter trains rambling across Kent to Waterloo at whatever speed they can manage between signal delays.

The terminal itself is not a memorable work of architecture. It is very much the province of the road engineer, an extension of the motorway network.

The architects, Building Design Partnership, and their engineers, Mott Hay, have come up with a crisp, logical, geometric grid of concrete ramps leading to and from the trains and simple white buildings that express no more than function.

Ramps lead down from exit 11a of the M20 to take cars across dramatic concrete flyovers to the waiting trains. There is, Eurotunnel says, no need for grand architectural statements, as cars will be whisked away from the severely functional terminal within eight minutes of arriving. Sixty-five minutes after turning off the M20, drivers will be switching to the right-hand side of the road as they join the autoroutes to Paris, Brussels and beyond.

However, within this web of concrete, there is a white, glazed passenger terminal for those for whom a journey to France would be incomplete without sandwiches, coffee, lavatories and duty-free.

The design is not thrilling, but then part of the thinking behind it is that those who worry about the finer points of design and architecture will pass through the terminal as quickly as possible whether by TMST or BMW. Even so, passengers might have expected something a little more dramatic after waiting for the past 150 years or so for the tunnel to open.

'We're not trying to compete with Eurodisney,' Martin Steerman, Design Manager of Eurotunnel (UK), said.

'The idea was always to build a functional, efficient terminal. The architecture is designed so that it won't date and the interiors have been kept as simple, as streamlined and as calm as possible.'

But, what about a more celebratory approach to the Continent? A terminal touched with the spirit of the Forth railway bridge or the new Channel tunnel terminal at Waterloo, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, might have been appropriate.

Victorian ideas for a channel terminal were inevitably more flamboyant. An illustration from the Illustrated London News - dating from 1870 - reveals a grand Doric train shed and a splendid hotel overlooking the Channel at the point where railway passengers arriving in Dover would have transferred straight from the train to a ferry bound for France.

Later plans dating from the 1930s have been consistently sparse in their architectural treatment; it was the engineering that was all important and the terminal played second fiddle to tunnelling methods in every illustrated description and model.

If the terminal at Folkestone is something of an anti-climax, the new stations at London's Waterloo and Ashford in Kent promise to be works of railway architecture that will echo and match the achievements of the Victorians.

(Photographs omitted)