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The British and French are facing an important test of their nerve and foresight.

That's because the elusive dream of a tunnel under the English channel connecting the two countries is in big trouble from cost over-runs and inflation.But it would be folly to back off now. Due to be completed in mid-1993, the 94-mile project is almost a quarter completed after 21 months of work. Though the price tag has increased $1.59 billion to a total of $12 billion, the extra outlays by private builders and banks should be considered anything but an exercise in throwing good money after bad.

After all, most major construction projects break their budgets because of delays and inflation. Consequently, such problems should have been anticipated when it comes to this particular project, which is the largest construction job in the world.

When completed, the project is to consist of not just one tunnel but three carrying high-speed trains as well as trucks and passenger cars.

By reducing shipment time and possibly freight costs, the project can be expected to stimulate trade between Britain and France plus the rest of Western Europe. Speedier trains in the future could also make travel time via the tunnel comparable to flight time, avoiding airport delays and flight cancellations because of bad weather. Moreover, with increased trade and travel should come increased unity and cooperation between Britain and the rest of Europe.

If the tunnel had been built in 1965 when Britain and France first started considering it seriously, the cost would have come to only $480 million. Though the present $12 billion price tag looks steep by comparison, it could easily look like a bargain in another 30 years or so.