This earth, this realm, this rail terminus ...

The Channel Tunnel - Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945 - Channel Tunnel, the Link to Europe
March 10, 1995

Many would agree with Queen Victoria when in 1875 she wrote to Disraeli expressing her strong disapproval of the Channel Tunnel and hoped that "the Government will do nothing to encourage the proposed tunnel under the Channel, which she thinks very objectionable". British governments and their jaundiced military advisers have devoted a great deal of effort to being negative about the tunnel in the intervening 120 years.

Keith Wilson, in his scholarly and entertaining Channel Tunnel Visions, takes us on a grand tour of the mental landscape of our leaders between 1850 and 1945. The outrageous, ludicrous and irrelevant statements of highly-placed nobility and politicians will strike a chord with those who follow the late 1990s manifestations of the same thing. The Earl of Crawford in 1929 was a masterful exponent of all that is British is wonderful and all that is foreign is brutish and nasty. To these defenders of British character and integrity the Channel is a physical guarantee of moral superiority and a bulwark against the "corrupt and corrupting influence of the French". We should be grateful to Wilson for revealing the extent of this deeply entrenched xenophobic nastiness.

Early rejections of the tunnel strayed into some lively contemporary debates. When the prime minister rejected the tunnel proposal in 1907 he was concerned about "a feeling of insecurity which might lead to a constant demand for increased expenditure, naval and military" and was not convinced by its economic advantages: "there has not been disclosed any such prospect of advantage to the trade and industries of the country as would compensate for (its) evils".

Wilson's insights supply a splendid starting point for Richard Gibb's contemporary account, The Channel Tunnel: A Geographical Perspective. They are equally useful in understanding the tortured debate about Britain's relationships with the European Union and the underlying ideology that Britain is set apart from the common herd.

A physical fixed-link connection with mainland Europe is one of many examples in Europe of "missing links". It has become fashionable in recent years for transport specialists, investment banks, the transport directorate of the European Commission and powerful lobby groups such as the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) to argue for these missing links to be filled in. Europe is awash with grandiose Napoleonic plans for "super-highways" connecting Cork with Vladivostok, Naples with Trondheim or Madrid with Berlin. These do not look very good on the map if odd bits of water get in the way. This is why we have the Channel Tunnel and the Oresund link connecting Malmo in Sweden with Copenhagen. Gibb is very weak on this wider strategic context and on the logic of this obsession with international linkage fuelled by a strange obsession with longer-distance trips. All transport geographers should be aware that most passenger journeys are less than five miles long and most lorry journeys are less than 100 miles long. The search for greater levels of interconnectedness and greater long-distance travel opportunities is not being undertaken in response to market demand; it is being pursued at great cost to create that demand and to create a new kind of Europe and a European version of a globalised local economy.

In a peculiar way Victorian, Edwardian and subsequent commentators on the tunnel were right to focus on psychological and ideological concerns because that is what the debate is about. But their jingoism, racism and eccentricity have no place in contemporary Europe, though they do surface in contemporary UK politics on a fairly regular basis. The tunnel raises some fundamental geographical, spatial and economic questions and these are not handled well in Gibb's book. New transport infrastructure is about increasing the demand for transport. That is why private-sector organisations get involved in the funding. This demand-led approach runs counter to the insights to be had from the sustainability debate. Sustainability does not figure in Gibb's text and we are left to ponder the implications of ever higher levels of demand for freight and passenger transport fuelled by more and more infrastructure, based on large amounts of public investment and large subsidies.

Large capital investments in new infrastructure will change the economic and spatial structure of Europe. This point is made in Michael Chisholm's chapter on "Industrial location and peripherality" and in Gibb and David Smith's "The regional economic impact of the Channel Tunnel" but neither contribution adequately specifies the intense feedback mechanisms that will feed the tendency to greater levels of spatial concentration and specialisation in Europe's local economies and throw an increasing burden on the road system and the environment.

Gibb and Smith are rightly concerned about the relative fortunes of regions more distant from the tunnel and think that things might not be as bad for these distant regions as some commentators have thought. However they fall into the usual trap of assuming that better infrastructure connections to the north and west might make things better. Reference to the literature on regional development benefits of new transport infrastructure would show that this assumption is untenable.

John Farrington and Paul Tomlinson pick up the environmental theme. This is a very disappointing chapter. The opening assertion that the transfer of traffic to rail from road brings "less clear benefits than might be supposed" is not substantiated by evidence on relative environmental impacts. If road transport is compared with rail in terms of specific emission factors and in terms of grams of pollutant per tonne kilometres of freight carried then we find that road transport is 55 times more polluting than rail for carbon monoxide, 34 times for nitrogen oxide, 11 times for volatile organic com£ and six times for carbon dioxide. The evidence on the damaging effect of road transport and the health effects of diesel exhaust emissions is so massive that it is hard to understand why it has been omitted from this chapter. Traffic generation and growth in demand for transport are not discussed, both of which are essential to an understanding of present and future environmental impacts. Noise, land take, vibration and health impacts are all missed and there is no assessment of the wider strategic impact of the Channel Tunnel on transfers of freight from road to rail on Britain's motorways. Readers would be well advised to consult more authoritative sources of information on this topic and the 18th Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

It is always difficult to produce an edited volume of consistently high quality and Gibb's book is no exception. It will satisfy a demand for an overview of the issues at an undergraduate or professional level but it does not begin to address the wider strategic issues that are so important to an understanding of the Channel Tunnel. The tunnel is part of the development of a new kind of Europe based on the supply of transport infrastructure to stimulate mobility. This conflicts with environmental objectives and with local economy development objectives and these conflicts are still only barely understood.

The combination of Gibb's book and the imprecise literature guide by Lesley Grayson, in Channel Tunnel the Link to Europe, provides us with a surfeit of descriptive material on the tunnel. Grayson's literature overview runs to 621 entries and will save the life of many harassed undergraduates desperate to get an essay in on time. It is more technical than Gibb's volume and deals with important issues related to safety, security, construction and transport technology. It also provides another insight into the regional and economic issues covered in Gibb.

The Channel Tunnel has dramatically altered the transport and accessibility landscape of Europe. The Victorian and Edwardian arguments about its impact are still in use, though sometimes heavily disguised. These three books provide more than enough raw material for any student, researcher or professional to become thoroughly briefed in a relatively short time. There is nevertheless a yawning gap in the Channel Tunnel literature and one which is getting more important as our transport investments grow in scale. By 2025 (probably) we will have doubled our airport capacity to carry people and freight; we will have one or more high-speed rail links through Britain linking the tunnel to far-flung regions; we will have larger, more efficient ferries and aircraft; and we will spend much more time travelling longer distances and consuming goods and services (and food) that have travelled thousands of miles rather than tens of miles. Will we be happier? Will our local communities be more pleasant places in which to live? Will the people have work? The answers to these questions are being shaped now by developments like the tunnel and we are not very good at knowing what questions to ask.

John Whitelegg is managing director, Eco-Logica Limited, and former head of the geography department, Lancaster University.

The Channel Tunnel: A Geographical Perspective

ISBN - 0 471 94908 6
Publisher - John Wiley & Sons
Price - £39.95
Pages - 244pp

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