60II: The Chunnel

Across The Channel

In a 60 Minutes classic, we re-visit an engineering marvel. They call it the Chunnel - what else would you call a tunnel underneath the channel that separates Britain from France.

When we first reported this story more than a decade ago, many in Britain worried about the negative impact the tunnel would have. And some of those worries have come true as thousands of refugees from places like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq have tried to illegally enter the tunnel from France and make their way to Britain. Steve Kroft reports.

In late December, more than 500 asylum-seekers broke through barbed wire fences and stormed the tunnel. French police captured all of them, but not before they managed to shut the tunnel down for 10 hours. It was the third such incident since Sept. 11.

In 1990, the Chunnel was still being built. It was built from Sangatte, France, south of Calais, to the suburb of Folkestone, England, beneath a body of water Shakespeare called a moat built by nature herself. Threee hundred feet beneath the sea, 9,000 workers moved tons of earth and equipment to change that.

The French dug northwest, the British southeast at a rate of 33 yards and $5 million a day. They met, and by 1993 reduced Shakespeare's moat into a dark blip on a high-speed rail train between Paris and London. It changed the face of Europe forever, like it or not, and there were plenty of people who did not.

In pastoral Kent, where the tunnel touches British soil, village vicars preached against it from the pulpit.

The Rev. Roger Knight believed the rail link would uproot this garden of England and foul the footpaths with foreigners. Like many in Britain, he believed that British interests lay across the sea with America and not across the channel.

“We're no more in Europe than Canada is in the United States,” says Knight, who has never been to mainland Europe. “Culturally, we're nothing to do with Europe at all.”

The only way to get to the mainland on the eve of the 21st Century was the same way the Normans got there in the 11th: over water. Only the traveling time changed, about two hours, factoring in customs and immigration, an inconvenience that never seemed to bother the British.

Britain still considers itself to be a nation of seafarers and deep in the national psyche, Britannia still rules the seas. If they must journey to the continent, most Britons could care less about saving an hour. As Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, put it in 1857: “Why would we ever want to shorten a distance we would like to make much farther.”

On the French side of the channel, the attitude was completely different. If the British resisted the tunnel as an invasion, the French embraced it as an opportunity. After all, the concept of a united Europe was their idea.

The only people to make any real money on the project were French real estate agents selling to English gentlemen who had never let priniple interfere with profits. The gentry discovered that when the tunnel was finished they'd be able to reach a country home in France quicker than they could drive to their country home in Kent; which was not much of a selling point to the people in the pubs in Folkestone.

“The problem is at the end of the day, we just do not like the French. We like France, we like their food, we like the way they live their life, but we just don't like the French people,” said one man.

Seven years after the tunnel opened and 12 years after this story originally aired, one of Britain's xenophobic fears has become a reality. The tunnel has provided another avenue for illegal immigration into Britain at a time when everyone is concerned about terrorism and border security. There's no disputing that the Chunnel has deprived - or relieved - England of its island status forever. Strangely enough it's mostly the British who are lining up to use it.

Nearly 20 million Britons last year alone invaded France. Day-trippers put their cars on the trains, enter the tunnel and in just 35 minutes they are transported from the land of fog and marmalade to the land of sunshine, filled with cheap wine and even cheaper food.

But if the British are invading France, immigrants from all over the world are trying to invade Britain. The tunnel has become a pipeline for illegal immigrants - especially in recent months immigrants from Afghanistan - and the terminal in France has become the frontier. Some 50,000 people were stopped there last year trying to slip into Britain by way of the tunnel. And many of them are still being detained at a Red Cross shelter less than a mile from the train station.

John Noulton helped build the tunnel and today works for Eurotunnel, the company that manages it. Noulton says that nearly 300 immigrants are caught each night hiding on trains or walking on the tracks. For those seeking political asylum, their luck increases dramatically if they manage to reach British soil. British authorities aren't allowed to stop people and ask for identity cards. But that may be changing.

For the first time in history, Britain is now considering making identity cards mandatory. Since the Sept.11 attacks, security around the tunnel has been stepped up, and securing the borders has become a national priority. But even that has not stopped the flow of immigrants.

All this has not helped the already tense relationship between the British and the French, particularly at a time when Britain is struggling, not only with the loss of its unique identity as an island, but with its future place in the European Community.

Some say that will take a long time to change. “Not in my lifetime, probably,” says Noulton. “No, you see I'm from the generation where Europe was a place where you used to go to kill people. Nowadays, we go there increasingly on holiday."

Today Knight still preaches from the pulpit, but not abouthe tunnel. To this day, he's never been through it, and he's disappointed that so many of his fellow countrymen have - but not totally surprised.

He does not plan to go. “I don't have any particular intention of going. I like to go to places where you can enjoy the food and drink the water,” he says, laughing.

The British may still consider themselves a nation of seafarers, but if they have to go to the continent, most now prefer the comfort and the convenience of the Eurostar. No wind in the hair, salt air in the lungs, just the gentle clicking of the rails at 100 miles an hour in the pitch darkness underneath the waves.

The three-hour-and-10-minute journey from London to Paris is so seamless that many Britons now lament that traveling abroad was never quite so uneventful.

One thing the British and French do have in common is that investing in the tunnel was a sure way to lose money. While large banks have been collecting interest payments for years, private investors won't see a profit for another decade, when most of them won't be around to enjoy it. They did receive one fringe benefit, however - free train rides until the system is turned over to the British and French governments in the year 2045. That is, if they want it back, which seems unlikely since most public utilities now show little interest in running transport systems. And there's been talk of yet another tunnel, but construction on that may not even begin for more than a decade. Which should be some comfort to Knight.

He is still quite sure of his feelings on the subject: “I was born in Britain -and I shall be British to the day I die.”

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