Thirty years ago, Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand officially opened the Channel Tunnel, the dream was connectivity. The idea of a tunnel beneath the English Channel dates back to the early 19th century when initial proposals were put forward. However, it wasn't until the late 20th century that the project came to fruition. The construction of the Channel Tunnel faced numerous challenges, including geological obstacles such as varying soil types and the presence of water-bearing strata. Additionally, financial constraints posed a significant hurdle, requiring innovative funding mechanisms to support the project. Despite these challenges, technological advancements, such as the development of tunnel boring machines, played a crucial role in expediting the construction process. These machines facilitated the excavation of the tunnel, making it possible to overcome the geological complexities and meet the project's ambitious timeline.

What went wrong?

So why is it the Channel Tunnel a stumbling block for linking the UK to the European high-speed network? That’s simple, the cost to the train companies of running their trains through the tunnel.

The high-speed network is developing fast, and Renfe are already introducing their ‘bullet train’ (Avlo) into the Spanish network. They have applied to the French for a route into Paris, French bureaucracy is delaying the application, but Renfe hopes to be operating to Paris by the end of the year.

The high-speed link between Madrid and Lisbon is under construction and is due to open ‘soon’. That means that passengers from France and Spain should soon be able to travel to Lisbon and possibly Porto at anything up to 300kmh. For the English, it’s another matter entirely. The channel tunnel is the only link, and the operators have indicated that they don’t have a problem granting Renfe permission to use the tunnel.

Why is this an issue? Because the UK is a major market for the Algarve and increasingly Lisbon. High speed trains from Paris through to Lisbon (via Madrid) are increasingly viable. The link to the UK is a long way off.

Capacity isn’t a problem, at present, there are up to 12 trains per hour each way through the Channel Tunnel. That could increase to 16. That’s an extra train every 15 minutes. The problem seems to be the cost for train operators. The tunnel is operated by Getlink, and they charge a fee to run trains through the tunnel. The company earns around £17 for each passenger on every Eurostar train, as well as a small additional amount to cover the cost of electricity.

A quick calculation (thanks Google) shows that a Eurostar, just for passing through the tunnel, will pay around 10,000 Sterling to the tunnel operators. That’s without any other costs. A Boeing 737 will consume around 5,000 Sterling of aviation fuel for the entire journey from London to Faro. If the cost of using the tunnel isn’t substantially reduced, we will probably never see a direct train service from London to Portugal, it’s not economically viable.

A further issue is the fire regulations in the Channel Tunnel and for obvious reasons they are very stringent. So far only three models of passenger train have been approved to run through the tunnel – the Alstom TMST (the original Eurostar), and the Siemens ICE 406 and Velaro (the new Eurostar). Renfe would have to get approval for their high-speed trains. Renfe has been exploring whether its Talgo-built AVE 106 trains might eventually be able to be used through the Channel Tunnel

Hard to match the low cost airlines

In the low season, you can get a ticket with Ryanair or the other low-cost operators for a similar price that Getlink charges per passenger just for passing through the tunnel. Budget airlines can outprice any train operator. The EU needs to do something to enforce or subsidise using the tunnel. They subsidise everything else, and this is a core environmental policy which is greatly needed.

Still no realistic choice

Most of us would prefer the comfort of the train, wide seating, space, a dining car and good food (hopefully), and even sleeping cars. It’s becoming a reality for the French and Spanish visitors, maybe for neighbouring countries, though they would have to change in Paris. For British visitors, it’s a long way off. You will have to put up with congested airports, long waiting, cramped seating and a plastic sandwich (if you are lucky). The low-cost airlines win all the way, their costs are so much lower.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman