Leading Article: Channel crossings and the seasickness factor

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THE EXTENT to which the Channel tunnel will transform our lives when it opens - with luck, in the summer of next year - is one of the great imponderables of the decade. Nobody has a clue how popular it will be. Surveys suggest that up to half the population is allergic to the idea of spending about 45 minutes under all that water.

The subjects of their fears range from flooding and cave-ins to fires, bombs and attacks of claustrophobia. No doubt this anxiety will be eased by reassuring accounts (all being well) from passengers during the shuttle service's first few weeks of operation. Yet, with an equal lack of dubiety, there will remain a hard core of phobics who would as soon use the tunnel as they would enter the London Underground.

All that is certain is that the prospect of physically linking England and France has greatly concentrated the minds of those who run ferry services on, rather than under, the water. The tunnel itself may cost up to a whopping pounds 10bn or so: the figure keeps rising. But in the past five years cross-Channel ferry operators have invested a not negligible pounds 1bn in making their services more attractive and competitive.

According to a recent analysis, Brittany Ferries headed the list with an estimated pounds 350m on new or enlarged vessels and ancillary services, with P & O, Stena Sealink and North Sea Ferries not far behind. To improve profitability there have been cutbacks, too, mainly at the expense of the service to Boulogne. This is currently provided only by the Hoverspeed SeaCat out of Folkestone.

Boulogne (even without its fine new aquarium) has always been a more popular destination than Calais; but the latter is better placed for motorway connections. Spotting a chance for niche marketing, a Folkestone company, as we report today, is planning to open a thrice- daily service to Boulogne from the middle of next month. The aim is to bring back the pleasure of cross-Channel ferries, a phenomenon too ancient for most travellers to recall - if indeed it ever existed.

It remains for the new company to demonstrate whether it is prepared to keep numbers low enough to avoid the gross overcrowding that contributes to the unpleasantness of most Channel crossings during the holiday season. Another challenge will be to serve decent food at reasonable prices.

But over the most important element, the weather, it will have no control. Certainly it is less disagreeable to be seasick on a well-managed ship; but it remains a distressing experience. When strong winds blow, ships will roll, to nauseating effect. Meanwhile, 140ft below, Le Shuttle will continue to ply imperviously, its passengers smug in the knowledge not only that they are saving time but also that up above, ferry passengers are throwing up in their hundreds. This vomit factor is surely one on which the tunnel's publicists will skilfully play.