For haulage companies, the Channel Tunnel was a long time coming.
Believe it or not, the first plans were drawn up in 1802 – nearly 220 years ago. Work actually started, in an amateurish fashion, in the late 19th century and then was stopped.
Fast forward another century and work this time started in earnest. The Channel Tunnel officially opened in 1994.
Why the Delays?
In the very earliest ideas, it became quickly apparent that the technology didn’t really exist to turn things into a reality. Later in the 19th century, the Victorians, with their boundless energy, engineering skills and virtually unlimited manpower, very probably could have built the tunnel. Cost-justification though was a major problem and, incredibly, military objections were raised.
For many centuries, English then British sea power had made it virtually impossible for the continental powers to launch a successful invasion of the British Isles. People really thought, though, that French or German troops might come pouring out of a hole in the ground if the tunnel existed, thereby bypassing the Royal Navy. Sneaky!
The Second World War and airpower proved that idea was now obsolete and the plans were resurrected but got nowhere due to a lack of money and political will.
By the 1970s-80s, however, the position had changed and haulage companies were at the forefront of that. The fact of the matter was that the vast growth in road haulage with the European continent was putting ever-increasing stresses on the channel ports – most notably on the short routes to Calais and Dunkirk.
Haulage companies just couldn’t afford any longer to have vehicles queuing for hours to get on a ferry, then wait for it to chug sedately across the channel. They could afford even less the delays that arose when bad weather caused sailings to be cancelled.
So, the ‘Chunnel’ idea was re-born. After much traditional British public scepticism and indifference (excluding by the haulage companies), it was completed as outlined above.
It’s a wonderful service and very simple. Accompanied trucks are loaded into semi-enclosed rail wagons. The drivers then go off and sit in a comfortable lounge while they and their trucks are whisked under the channel in about half an hour.
The service runs very frequently and has revolutionised the international road haulage industry in terms of connecting the UK to continental Europe. In early August 2016, “Le Shuttle Freight” (the operating company) passed its millionth transported truck mark that year – a staggering figure and an increase of 3% over the previous year.
It’s probably fair to assume that the hard-pressed controllers of haulage companies don’t lose too much sleep at night worrying about Le Shuttle Freight’s operating profits or statistics.
However, the Channel Tunnel has brought huge benefits for hauliers who need to cross those eastern short-channel routes. The Chunnel is faster and typically more reliable than the ferry services and it’s relatively green by comparison. It has been estimated that a truck transiting the channel by rail requires 20% less fuel burned to help it do so than those on a ferry.
Nobody can deny that it has had its fair share of challenges too. There have been fires, strikes and some considerable disruption prior to 2015 due to refugees in Calais trying to illegally get into Britain.
However, overall most would agree it’s been a great success for the industry. Anyone much over about 45 will remember the days when the Channel Tunnel was a bit of an abstract concept and joke within haulage companies. Those days are now long gone!
Norman Dulwich is a Correspondent for Haulage Exchange, the leading online trade network for the road transport industry. Connecting professionals across the UK and Europe through their website, Haulage Exchange provides services for matching haulage companies with jobs in road transport and haulage work. Over 4,000 transport exchange businesses are networked together through their website, trading jobs and capacity in a safe ‘wholesale’ environment.