Shuttle holds key to tunnel's future: Christian Wolmar looks at the costly rolling stock built to carry vehicles under the Channel

THE TRAINS on which the financial future of the pounds 10bn Channel tunnel project rests are the most expensive and sophisticated rolling stock ever built, costing almost pounds 300m a coach because of the tunnel's safety requirements.

There will be space for five cars in each coach and, with 12 single-deck and 12 double-deck coaches, each train can carry 120 cars, 12 caravans and 12 coaches. Each wagon has 63km of electric cable and each train has more than 500 computers.

Bombardier, the Canadian- owned manufacturer, has now delivered all but 18 of the 254 trains. This is a year late after a series of disputes with Eurotunnel, the tunnel operator, but this has hardly mattered since the tunnel is a year behind schedule anyway.

This summer there will be only occasional services at cheap rates. The shuttle starts in earnest in October and will build up to four trains an hour.

Eurotunnel says it will take 35 minutes from the platform at Folkestone to Calais plus eight minutes each for loading and unloading, giving a total time from motorway to motorway of about an hour. This is the main selling point for the company that aims to capture half the cross-Channel market in a couple of years.

Eurotunnel has a big selling job to do. It has eschewed a price war with the ferry operators by announcing similar prices - up to pounds 310 return for car and passengers in peak season.

There will be no refreshments on sale so Eurotunnel must attract motorists away from the ferries' restaurants, duty free and views by offering a quick service not at the mercy of the weather.

The wagons were on show at the factory in Bruges, Belgium, yesterday. They are enormous: 5.6m high and long enough to take a normal train coach. Inside, there are electronic displays and passengers can leave their cars and use the lavatories.

The ventilation system will clear the air of exhaust fumes and heavy steel doors will separate the coaches. The central drainage channel has two fire extinguishing systems, foam and halon gas, and there are smoke detectors there and in the roof.

Any fears about safety seem totally unfounded, but convincing people to take what one engineer described as 'a tunnel in a tunnel', will be an uphill task even though Bombardier has created a technological masterpiece.

Travel transformed, page 16

(Photograph omitted)

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