Travel: Heading for the deep south: The cost has been revealed. But what will using the Channel tunnel be like? Frank Barrett made a dry run at Folkestone

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The Independent Travel
I asked the taxi driver who picked me up at Folkestone Central station to take me to the Eurotunnel offices. This inspired a discourse. 'It's a funny thing,' he said. 'All the English people I talk to don't seem to be really interested in the Channel tunnel. But the French people I meet, they're bubbling over with enthusiasm about it all. Why is that? It's odd.'

He is right, it is a funny thing. With the tunnel now less than four months from opening (112 days from today, I was told by a Eurotunnel executive who was clearly keeping a close eye on the calendar), the British still seem resolutely unimpressed.

The announcement of Eurotunnel fares last Tuesday attracted only modest coverage in the newspapers. Thirty years ago papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express might have seized the occasion as an opportunity to publish flag-waving supplements full of cutaway drawings and photographic scrapbooks. But this week there were simply concise reports of the tariffs and some brief speculation on the chances of a fare war with the ferries. No enthusiasm and little excitement. 'Perhaps we just don't like the idea of change,' mused my taxi driver.

He dropped me off next to the walk-in travel centre located in the brand new Eurotunnel Customer Services building (portholed and sleek like a plump ocean liner berthed above the rolling waves of traffic on the M20).

Wednesday morning at 11 o'clock and the Eurotunnel travel centre had been open for business for exactly two hours, its first two hours of trading. Four staff sat at the counter, eagerly poised behind computer screens and keen for custom. Had business been brisk? Had people been camping out overnight to be first in the queue?

'People are definitely booking. Definitely,' I was told. (Of course, no one can book for a specific time and date, as no bookings are allowed - the system simply permits pre-payment, the benefits of which are unclear.) How many 'bookings' had they actually received so far? 'Lots of inquiries.' But how many people had been into the office to buy a ticket? 'Um . . . So far this morning? Um . . . One. But in the telephone booking department upstairs I know they've had a lot more bookings. Definitely.'

Upstairs in the wide expanses of the telephone booking department, which offers a stirring view across the M20 to the even wider expanses of the terminal, I was offered the name of the first person to book direct. Mr K J Brandon of Camberley, Surrey, had telephoned at 9.02am and planned to travel on 14 May. At the end of the first day, 150 people had booked, compared with the 8,000 who booked with P & O European Ferries.

After years of being one of the world's biggest construction projects, the Channel tunnel is now something that has to be sold to customers: the world's biggest marketing challenge. Will the customers buy? A leading tour operator to France to whom I spoke this week was sceptical. 'I hope I'm wrong,' he said, 'but for some reason this whole thing keeps reminding me of Euro Disney.'

CHRISTOPHER Garnett, Eurotunnel's commercial director, chuckled at the Euro Disney comparison. 'There's one big difference between Euro Disney and us: we love bad weather. Bad weather is good for our business.'

The start of the service will, he believes, bring a revolution in European travel. 'The tunnel stands alongside the Suez and Panama Canals as milestones in international transport,' he proclaimed at a press conference this week.

The day after this presentation, I was with him, heading towards the slip road that climbs from the M20 to the terminal entrance. And suddenly it was possible to understand this man's evangelical zeal. For here the way ahead was marked by a motorway sign for 'France' as if it were a destination no different from Dover or Canterbury. The tunnel has accomplished something so extraordinary, you have to see it to believe it: the M20 really will soon lead to France.

'The idea is that the tunnel is just a continuation of the motorway,' said Mr Garnett. This conceit is reinforced when the traveller is greeted with a 'Toll/Peage' sign (every Eurotunnel sign is bi-lingual), just as on the French autoroutes. And, rounding the corner, you come upon a row of 12 booths, modelled closely on French autoroute toll booths. Here travellers pay by cash or credit card, or hand over their pre-paid voucher. If all goes smoothly, this should take little more than a minute. Drivers will then turn either right for France, or left for the passenger services terminal building.

This is certainly no M1 service area: the landscaping is magnificent, the building itself stunning, its glass-and-wood sides topped off with a white tented roof - through which a blue laser light will be projected high into the sky at night. 'Here there will be whole blocks of loos,' indicated Mr Garnett. Since the Shuttle will have only one toilet for every three wagons (a compromise: the French wanted no toilets at all), parents would be wise to make sure their children take full advantage of this facility.

From the services building, it is a drive of three or four minutes to the Shuttle train. Before boarding, you pass through both British and French customs and immigration (coming back you pass through these checks on the Calais side), which makes for a fast exit at the other end. 'This part here is where the French checks are carried out; it will be French territory, the French police will be allowed to carry their guns - this caused a lot of fuss when it was announced.'

Following the indicator arrows on overhead gantries (beneath which, digital clocks show French time), you are guided on to the bridge, then down on to the platform where the Shuttle wagon awaits. On Wednesday morning there was just an empty freight wagon at the platform so it was not possible to test the rigours of the sharp right-angle turn that boarding demands. 'Easy,' breezed Mr Garnett, brooking no hint of complaint. 'There will be continuous loading on these nine platforms.'

From the platform it is no more than 300 yards to the 'Portal': the actual entrance to the tunnel. 'There's no sensation of going downhill. The train quickly picks up speed to 80mph, and in 27 minutes you will be out into the sunlight of Calais. It's not very long, is it? The length of an episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders. On a ferry, from the time you are called to your car to the time you actually drive off often takes 15 minutes - the time going though the tunnel isn't much longer than that.'

Perhaps, when the tunnel opens to the public on Sunday, 8 May, it will all work as Mr Garnett says. But that awful name now starts to bother me as well, though whisper it softly in Folkestone: Euro Disney.

THERE are several reasons why Euro Disney has failed, but chief among them are that when it opened it was too expensive and it promised more than it could deliver (a problem complicated by early operational difficulties). This should give Eurotunnel pause for serious thought. The Eurotunnel fares announced this week are certainly not cheap. They have been artfully pitched so as not to look unacceptably expensive when compared with the ferries, but not so low as to raise the spectre of a price war. Eurotunnel is understandably anxious to play down any possibility of the latter.

But one is bound to conclude that the Eurotunnel prices unveiled on Tuesday are but the first move in the game: whatever Eurotunnel and the ferry companies say now about a fare war, things could be quite different in the white heat of summer competition.

For Eurotunnel's immediate future, however, the most pressing question is not the fare but the service. Will it be able to meet its promise of a 65-minute journey motorway to motorway? Will its no-reservation, turn-up-and-take-off system work in practice?

It is worth recalling that the last travel operator to run a similar system was Laker Airways' Skytrain in 1977 on its service to New York: this idea resulted in tented villages at Gatwick, where hundreds camped out for days to be sure of getting a seat. As a result, Skytrain rapidly had to introduce a booking system.

This summer, Eurotunnel faces a grave risk of delays. During May and June it will be operating half- length Shuttles twice an hour - a capacity of 180 cars an hour. A P & O jumbo ferry, operating every 45 minutes during much of the day, takes almost four times as many.

Eurotunnel says, with some justification, that if a queue backs up along the three-quarter-mile slip road, people will simply carry on up the M20 to Dover. But what of those who have pre-booked, the people who have a Shuttle ticket as part of an inclusive holiday package? They do not have that choice.

This time next year, Eurotunnel will have a reservation system. Its fares will have been cut, particularly for short breaks. My other predictions: the Government will have allowed P & O to buy Stena Sealink's Dover-Calais operation; airlines will have cut London-Paris fares to compete with the three-hour Eurostar rail service; and Jacques Delors will announce that Euro Disney is to become the headquarters of the European Commission.

(Photograph omitted)

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