Leading Article: Only a glint at the end of the tunnel

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THE Channel tunnel, whose operator yesterday announced its charges, has been heralded as transforming this country's relationship with the Continent. Britain, to borrow from John Donne, is no longer an island entire of itself. Yet a project that long evoked fears of invasion is being greeted with a startling indifference.

Thus the opinion polls demonstrate a typical Anglo-Saxon lack of enthusiasm: a recent survey found that three out of four Britons say they are unlikely to travel through it. Such slight domestic interest in Europe's largest civil engineering project this century will need to change if the pounds 10bn development costs are to be recouped.

Perhaps the reality of Le Shuttle has yet to sink in. The public may not fully appreciate the sheer ease with which passengers will be able to travel by train from London to Paris in three hours. There will be none of the awkward transfers between cars, trains, boats and planes at present required to travel from Britain to France and beyond. So international journeys will feel more like, say, a train trip from London to Liverpool, and take very little longer.

Crossing the Channel by car will involve less of a change, since vehicles will be driven on to a train before the crossing. But Eurotunnel hopes that, by eliminating any need for reservations, the journey will be not only quicker and smoother but also psychologically different: more like driving up a motorway with a few jams on the way.

Enthusiasts believe that the public's imagination will be captured, however belatedly, once the under- sea route is open. They may be disappointed. This example of essentially 19th-century technology, however remarkable, may do little to swing large numbers of Britons culturally towards the Continent at the expense of the United States.

This country's deeply ingrained transatlantic links continue to be reinforced by a common language, which also happens to be increasingly the world's first choice. These ties may not have the benefit of an under-sea tunnel, but they are bolstered by 20th-century technologies of air transport and telecommunications that are much cheaper than they were: the real cost of flying from London to New York is one- fifth, and a telephone call about one- fifteenth, of the 1960 price.

British insularity, combined with enduring historical ties to non-European countries, will remain a psychological block to continental integration. Those who hope the Channel tunnel will transform this country's relationship with the Continent should accept that such a revolution may come at less than grande vitesse.