Opening of tunnel ends great divide: Julian Nundy and Christian Wolmar report on a historic day of shuttle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BY A SEA shrouded in a fine mist the Queen and President Francois Mitterrand formally opened the Channel tunnel yesterday, 243 years after the project was first mooted by a French engineer.

Travelling through the tunnel for the first time, the Queen arrived by a Eurostar high-speed train which pulled to a halt a few yards from the President's identical transport which arrived at the same moment.

As the band of the French Republican Guard played the British and French national anthems followed by Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy', the European anthem, the two heads of state cut the red-white- and-blue (or blue-white-and-red, according to national sensibilities) ribbon simultaneously.

Accompanied by their prime ministers, John Major and Edouard Balladur, as well as Jean-Luc Dehaene of Belgium, the two heads of state then took a Eurotunnel bus to the road terminus where they saw a lorry and cars driving on to Le Shuttle trains which will carry road vehicles.

The tunnel, running a year behind schedule, is expected to take its first freight and truck traffic from next week. The Eurostar will begin linking Paris and London in July and private cars will be able to cross from October.

Speaking in French, the Queen, dressed in a fuchsia coat and pillbox hat, said the tunnel had rejoined 'what nature separated some 40 million years ago'.

The French and British peoples 'for all their regional and individual diversity and ages-long rivalry, complement each other well - better perhaps than we realise', she added.

'In the course of this century, the mixture of French elan and British pragmatism, when united in a common cause, has proved to be a highly successful combination,' she said. 'The tunnel embodies that simple truth. May we continue to combine in common causes for the benefit of all mankind.'

After lunch on the French side, the Queen and President Mitterrand took the royal Bordeaux-coloured Rolls-Royce with its plexiglass roof on Le Shuttle for a 35- minute ride to Folkestone for a similar ceremony in Britain.

One member of the official party, which included Sir Alastair Morton and Andre Benard, the two Eurotunnel chairmen, was Philippe Cozette, the Frenchman who first drilled through to the English side of the tunnel in December 1990. Mr Cozette has been retrained and employed as a shuttle driver.

The Eurostar service, which the Queen took from Waterloo in the morning, is designed to rival the airlines for speed, luxury and comfort.

However, the return on Le Shuttle, although as smooth a ride as Eurostar, was a claustrophobic experience. The windows are tiny, and there is nowhere to go except the toilets. There will be no refreshments or food available on Le Shuttle when services start. Although at an hour from motorway to motorway, it will save about 45 minutes on the equivalent ferry ride, most passengers yesterday agreed that given the facilities available on the ferries, with food, duty free shops, play areas and views of the White Cliffs of Dover, they would not use Le Shuttle except, perhaps, in a force 10 gale.

(Photograph omitted)