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第3册 - Unit 7, Section B - The Chunnel

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Queen Elizabeth and French President Francois Mitterrand will ride a train downward into the $15 billion Channel Tunnel today, crossing the English Channel by land for the first time since it was a marsh 8,000 years ago.

Common people still have to fly, take a boat, or swim.

Though today is the official opening ceremony, visitors are still excluded from the most enormous privately funded construction project ever. No one can ride through the tunnel yet: neither the people who own stock in the company, nor the officers of the 220 banks that provided history's biggest loan, nor the 3,000 journalists trying to imagine three parallel tunnels beneath 100 feet of water and 130 feet of clay.

When it really opens, probably in October, the 31-mile Channel Tunnel (the Chunnel, for short) will be 15 months behind schedule and $7 billion over a budget set in 1987. That's when workmen using huge machines began clawing out 1,000 tons of clay every half hour as they bored from England to France. The main causes of recent delays have been linking two very different railroad systems. And security: how to make such a big target attack-proof. Officials won't tell reporters the time at which the queen and president will make their trip.

People on both sides of the English Channel are proud of the engineering achievement. But most wonder if it's worth it given their respective lack of affection for each other. 'If they had linked us to Spain, that would have been more use to us now, wouldn't it?' says one man from London. Spain is a favorite vacation destination for the British. He laughs when a film about the Chunnel says it will make the British feel more European.

'Only advertising,' he says. 'The British will never feel European.'

The Kingdom of England has been trying to conquer, or defend itself from, Europe for 1,000 years. If not for the channel, England or France surely would have swallowed the other. 'A whole generation still remembers when only 21 miles stood between Hitler and the conquest of England,' says a professor of English history.

Although Britain and France both use the metric system and the same electrical voltage (220 volts), it sometimes seems as if they have little else in common. The British and the French rarely marry each other. The French remain afraid that their language will die out. The British think a sick animal will drag itself through the tunnel and introduce the island nation to new diseases.

The differences go on.

Upon leaving Paris, trains will whistle along at an approximate speed of 186 miles per hour until they go underground, but will creep along as slow as 50 miles per hour behind local trains the last 68 miles to London. Britain won't improve its system until after the year 2000, spurring Mitterrand to joke that passengers will have ' plenty of time for sightseeing '.

Time across the channel: 35 minutes compared to 90 minutes by sea. Total travel time, including getting on and off the train: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

The idea of linking England to the European mainland by tunneling beneath the channel goes back to 1802 when an engineer suggested it to Napoleon. Napoleon was too busy and dozens of other efforts were abandoned including serious ones in 1884, 1923, and 1974. The British were too worried about invasion.

The Chunnel will transport about 7 million passengers a year. Among them will be those who would have flown between London and Paris. If you take the Chunnel, it's about the same time as flying: three hours. It now takes more than six hours by rail and boat. Trains are more punctual, as they're not delayed by bad weather. Fares have not been set, but they're expected to be about the same as boat and airline service.

Experts say airlines will be big losers. London-Paris is by far the busiest international airline route in the world. More than 3 million people fly between the cities yearly, compared to 2.2 million between London and New York. Rail freight will begin quietly sometime in June. Eventually, the equivalent of 700,000 trucks a year will be transported through the Chunnel.

One thing that is left to the British to pray is to eliminate violence.

In March, an unexploded bomb was found on the railroad tracks between London and the Chunnel. One newspaper reported that Chunnel delays have been the result of faulty alarms, and only 'partially successful' escape procedures. Another newspaper reported a major security failure last year. The company that operates the Chunnel issued press releases accusing the reports of being inaccurate. But they have provided no details about the state of security.

The key to escape is the smaller tunnel that runs between the two train tunnels. Doors connect the train tunnels to the smaller tunnel every quarter mile and provide escape routes. Each train has two engines, in case one fails. A $3.6 million police station will have the most up-to-date equipment and 99 police officers.

Engineers say a disaster is unlikely in the Chunnel because it wouldn't be flooded by a bomb. The tunnel is too far beneath the sea floor. But that doesn't satisfy some who still believe it is likely to be attacked and should never have been built. One pessimistic visitor shrugged and said, 'I reckon it's just a matter of time before someone has a try, isn't it?'

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