When France and the UK were joined up by rail

How trains came to embody the Entente Cordiale

Entente Cordiale. Behind those two words lies the sentiment that the UK and France have more to gain by acting together rather than one against the other. There were centuries of conflict between these two nations before some savvy souls came up with this diplomatic concept in a bid to call an end to petty spats between the French and British (not without leaving a trace of irony in the name).

But it hasn’t been a total success. These days, France and the UK resemble an old couple, that despite everything, will never separate. There are quarrels that arise that are still irreconcilable. But still, there have been achievements that many people would never have thought possible. Nearly three decades ago, on May 6 1994, the Channel Tunnel was inaugurated, and it’s fair to describe this as one of the greatest infrastructure projects of the twentieth century.

That day, the UK and France met half-way between London and Paris, in Coquelles, not far from Calais, where a brand-new railway terminal awaited guests. Two trains made their arrival: on board one were Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and no fewer than 600 other visitors; in the other, then-French president François Mitterand, the first lady and their own entourage of officials.

This being a rendezvous between an old (and often troubled) couple, the leaders set a mischievous tone. The French president spoke first: ‘A month ago, we commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, which we named thus because it really is cordial, at least almost always.’ The Queen, speaking in French, was a little more serious. ‘The combination of French élan and British pragmatism has produced wonders. The tunnel is a mark of this simple truth: let’s continue to make common cause for the benefit of all humankind.’

She wasn’t wrong. The idea of a tunnel under the Channel Tunnel had first been put out there… in 1750. Two and a half centuries earlier, Nicolas Desmarest, a geographer by trade, had in fact dreamed that France and England could be linked by some sort of bridge or tunnel.

Back then, it was but a vision from the future. In 1833, an engineer called Aimé Thomé de Gamond picked up the baton and took the idea of an underwater tunnel further. He managed to convince Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III to give the construction of the tunnel the greenlight in 1867. But then, three years later, the Franco-Prussian War put the project on pause – and for quite some time.

It wasn’t until the start of the 1970s that the French British decided to revive the idea of a physical link between the two countries and make it a priority. A public callout was launched in 1985, with four key ideas put forward: Europont, a massive 37-kilometre bridge; Euroroutes, a mix of bridges and tunnels interwoven with various artificial islands, a proposal backed by the french president; Transmanche Express, a unrealistic project hastily suggested by British Ferries, which was opposed to the idea of a tunnel under the Channel; and finally, the Eurotunnel, which fast became the preferred option of experts and engineers.

And it was the latter that won out, of course. The 50.5km tunnel would comprise three tubes (one to go from France to England, another for the opposite direction, and the final one for use by maintenance staff). The success of the works, which lasted more than eight years, was down to the expertise of a consortium of five English businesses and five French ones. At least, that’s how things were supposed to work out.

In reality, disagreements between the two countries led to a rather unlikely strategy: it was decided that each would dig starting from their own side, and then meet in the middle. In typical fashion, the English workers were dressed in an orange uniform, while the French wore beige. Once again, the Entente Cordiale didn’t translate into perfect harmony between the two sides.

The works started in 1986, and just as you might expect, the teams advanced at quite different rhythms, with the English a little way ahead of the French. But at last, on December 1 1990, Frenchman Philippe Cozette and Brit Graham Fagg each gave a final swing of the axe (each on their own side, obviously) and the tunnel was complete.

More than 15,000 people had come together to make this historic dream a reality and when it came time for the first train service to get up and running, a few years later, all potential problems had been seen to. The first train left from France to the UK, while the first car to embark on the Shuttle was English, and the railway worker in charge of the manoeuvre was Willy Cooks, a Frenchman with British roots. So it seemed the old couple knew how to work together, after all.

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