It was that simple

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The Independent Online
AT 4.55pm last Thursday I was sitting on a train in Folkestone. At 5.25pm I was on the same train in Calais. In just 30 minutes I had made a journey to France that has taken almost 200 years to complete.

The English Channel, the turbulent expanse of sea that has throughout history been such a formidable barrier (Shakespeare's 'silver sea . . . a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands'), has been drained away. England is now bolted to France just as surely as it is linked to Wales or Scotland.

Yet the astonishing thing was that my journey was so ordinary. The train quickly gathered pace from the platform and within a couple of minutes had entered the tunnel. Very rapidly it built up to its maximum speed of 80mph without the least sign of locomotive judders or mechanical hesitation.

The train's passage along the track was impressively smooth: none of the clattering da-dun da-dun rock'n'roll rhythm typical of progress along any Network SouthEast line. 'Just like a Tube train ride,' said somebody. Except that Tubes rattle and crash with terrible fury as they roar through the blackness beneath London. Le Shuttle was a church mouse: conversations among passengers could be continued in the sort of pianissimo tones suitable for chatting to the vicar over tea.

Incredibly, one member of our 'preview' party of passengers slept throughout the journey; others idly flicked through a pile of old Sunday newspapers lying in an overhead rack. They might all have been travelling home to Sevenoaks on the 4.55 from Charing Cross.

I walked to the back of the carriage and looked through a rear window at the black hole of the tunnel as it raced away behind us. There was an undeniable dreamlike quality to it all. Could we really be travelling at such speed beneath the English Channel? Suddenly we were racing out of the darkness and into the slanting sunlight of an early French evening. The crossing was over. From England to France by train: as simple as this.

Claustrophobic? The ride was about as claustrophobic as a breakfast stroll through the open spaces of Hyde Park (certainly far less so than the queue can be in a ferry's duty-free shop). A couple of people said that their ears popped at some point, as the air pressure changed. But this was the only report of physical discomfort. Perhaps things will not always be as smooth-running as this. But my experience convinced me that the state opening of the Channel tunnel this Friday will eventually count as one of the Great Events of the Twentieth Century.

So let's raise a glass to toast the future possibilities that tunnel travel offers. Not just the economic potential of tourism or enhanced trade links; let's contemplate the selfish pleasures. Savour the prospect of climbing aboard a train on a cold spring night in Cardiff or Manchester and descending six or seven hours later on a warm, sun-drenched morning at a bougainvillaea-scented platform somewhere in Provence. I predict that in 100 years' time, the wonder will be not why we need to live with it; but rather how we ever managed to live without it.

If we have anything to regret about the tunnel, it is that Friday's opening didn't take place 30 years ago. But for now, in words once used in other circumstances by Baroness Thatcher (we should not forget that she was the Mother of the tunnel): 'Rejoice] Rejoice]'

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