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'Chunnel' hits 15 years and a profit

AFTER three years of sweat and toil, Philippe Cozette tunneled into history one wintry day in 1990, using a compressed air drill to power through the last chunk of chalk marl separating undersea tubes extending from the shores of Calais in France to the white cliffs of Dover in England.

When the Frenchman reached through the hole to shake hands with his English colleague Robert Graham Fagg on the other side, the two countries were physically linked for the first time since the last Ice Age. "Welcome to France," Cozette said in English. "Bonjour, mon ami," responded Fagg, before exclaiming in a distinctly English accent: "Vive la France!"

The Channel Tunnel - or Chunnel, as it's affectionately known - opened four years later on May 6, 1994. The world's longest undersea passageway stands on its 15th anniversary as a dazzling engineering feat that is finally turning a profit following years of crippling losses.

Changed Europe

And, while tucked away out of sight, it has become a monument to the possibility of change: after centuries of rivalry and warfare, France and England have become partners in a successful enterprise that has changed the face of Europe.

"We don't have the same way of doing things, but little by little we got to understand each other," Cozette said, talking about the French and English work crews - but making an observation that could apply to the two countries as well.

The French work teams were taught some English, Cozette said, and also given advice about the curious ways of their colleagues from across the Channel.

"We appreciate direct contact," he said. "The English don't. But little by little they learned to come and shake hands which is not at all natural for them ... There has been a lot of patience and understanding on both sides."

Inside, the tunnel is a dark, silent and lifeless place. Even animals don't venture inside. But the Chunnel has boosted economic life on both sides by improving trading links, galvanizing tourism, and also changing mentalities.

Britons have cast aside their island mind-set to warmly embrace the Chunnel, overcoming decades of resistance from British military officers who viewed the project as a national security breach that could tempt foreign invaders.

Once this belief faded, physical differences between the two national railway systems had to be worked out - but those adjustments were minor compared to the mental and cultural changes required to make the old enemies partners.

"I like to say the English Channel is 32 kilometers wide and 1,000 years deep," said Stephen Clarke, the English author of "A Year in the Merde" and other best-sellers about French life.

"It shows how close and yet so far apart we are. The tunnel has scythed through all that, it's just become so easy to nip back and forth." He said the tunnel has become "a secret staircase" that has made it much easier for people to cross the Channel for a football game, a concert, a good meal, or in search of romance.

Now that it has become a reliable transport link, the public tends to take the tunnel for granted, partly because passengers on the Eurostar train between London and Paris don't even see it as they glide through.

But the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recognizes it as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

"It's humbling," said Henry Petroski, chairman of the ASCE history and heritage committee.

"When it was under construction I took a tour and got a sense of the complexity and scale of it. The project goes back centuries - they started digging once in the 19th century - and to persevere for so long, over generations, makes it terribly significant."

But engineering success does not guarantee financial performance.

Once the tunnel opened, the company formed to operate the undersea link lurched from crisis to crisis, dragging down thousands of small shareholders, some of whom had invested their life savings in what had been dubbed the "construction project of the century."

The tunnel opened a year late in May 1994, having cost about twice as much as the original 4.9 billion pounds (US$7.42 billion) forecast.

Those costs, combined with pie-in-the-sky revenue predictions and savage price competition from ferry lines and budget airlines, left Eurotunnel struggling to keep up with the interest payments.

Once the banks were trapped by huge costs overruns, they transferred a significant part of their risks to poorly informed individual shareholders, according to Laurent Vilanova, a professor at Lyon University in France.

CEO Jacques Gounon is credited with masterminding the financial turnaround since taking over in 2005. He negotiated a deal that halved Eurotunnel's debt and rescued the company from bankruptcy.

But the operation heavily diluted Eurotunnel's existing shares, which account for 35 percent of the new company, Groupe Eurotunnel SA.

Gounon said the anniversary celebration marking 15 years since Queen Elizabeth II and then French President Francois Mitterrand opened the Channel Tunnel in two elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremonies in France and England will be a more subdued affair.

Shareholders will meet to vote on awarding themselves the first dividend in Eurotunnel's troubled history.

"I think saying that there are no more financial problems at Eurotunnel and to vote the first dividend in the company's history, that's enough to mark the 15th birthday," he said.


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