This Day in History (1-Dec-1990) – Chunnel makes breakthrough

The idea of tunneling beneath the English Channel began circulating in the early 19th century. In 1986, Britain and France signed a treaty authorizing the construction of a tunnel running between Folkestone, England, and Calais, France. Construction on the Chunnel (channel-tunnel) began in 1988. On December 1, 1990, 132 feet below the English Channel, workers drill an opening the size of a car through a wall of rock. This was no ordinary hole–it connected the two ends of an underwater tunnel linking Great Britain with the European mainland for the first time in more than 8,000 years. After workers drilled that final hole, they exchanged French and British flags and toasted each other with champagne.

Over the next four years, nearly 13,000 workers dug 95 miles of tunnels at an average depth of 150 feet below sea level. Eight million cubic meters of soil were removed, at a rate of some 2,400 tons per hour. The completed Chunnel would have three interconnected tubes, including one rail track in each direction and one service tunnel. At a cost of over $21 billion, the 31.4 mile-long Channel Tunnel was completed in 1994, and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterrand. With regular maintenance and upkeep, the Chunnel allows for millions of passengers travel between London and Paris each year – both for business and pleasure!

A company called Eurotunnel won the 55-year concession to operate the Chunnel, which is the crucial stretch of the Eurostar high-speed rail link between London and Paris. The regular shuttle train through the tunnel runs 31 miles in total–23 of those underwater–and takes 20 minutes, with an additional 15-minute loop to turn the train around. The Chunnel is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world, after the Seikan Tunnel in Japan.

The Channel tunnel was one of the largest construction projects of the 20th century and remains a marvel of engineering even today. It was selected by American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World in 1996.


This Day in History (25-Aug-1997) – Konkan Railway line in Goa, except for a short stretch between Pernem and Maharashtra border, becomes operational

The Konkan Railway, 741-kilometre line connects Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka States — a region of criss-crossing rivers, plunging valleys and mountains that soar into the clouds. Apart from setting a trend for other infrastructure projects in the country, the Konkan Railway provides concrete proof of the skills of Indian engineers, their discipline, team spirit and courage.  On July 19, 1990, the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) was incorporated as a public limited company and E. Sreedharan, a senior railway official, as its first Chairman and Managing Director. The company set itself a challenging target of five years to complete the work. With a total number of over 2,000 bridges and 91 tunnels to be built through this mountainous terrain containing many rivers, the project was the biggest and perhaps most difficult railway undertaking during this century, at least in this part of the world. There were challenges posed by the terrain and the elements. Flash floods, landslides and tunnel collapses affected work at many places on the project. The region was also thickly forested, and construction sites were often plagued by wild animals.

To enable quicker construction, several innovative practices were adopted. Piers for major bridges were cast on the riverbanks itself and launched using cranes mounted on pontoons. The technique of incremental launching of bridge spans was used for the first time in India.  The biggest challenge, however, came from the nine tunnels that had to be bored through soft soil. No technology existed anywhere in the world for this purpose and the work had to be carried out through a painstakingly slow manual process. Excavation was almost impossible due to the clayey soil that was saturated with water owing to a high water table in the region. Several times tunnels collapsed immediately after they had been dug, necessitating work to be redone. Nineteen lives and four years were lost while constructing the soft soil tunnels alone. In all, seventy-four people perished during the construction of the line. Trains carrying passengers started running along the full route between Mumbai and Mangalore from May 1998.



This Day in History (5-Jul-1841) – Thomas Cook opens 1st travel agency

At the age of 24, Thomas Cook joined Temperance Society (movement against alcohol) and organized meetings & held anti-liquor processions in England. Cook’s idea to offer excursions came to him while walking from Market Harborough to Leicester to attend a meeting of the Temperance Society. With the opening of the extended Midland Counties Railway, he arranged to take a group of 540 temperance campaigners from Leicester Campbell Street station to a rally in Loughborough, eleven miles away. On 5 July 1841, Thomas Cook arranged for the rail company to charge one shilling per person that included rail tickets and food for this train journey. Cook was paid a share of the fares actually charged to the passengers. This was the first privately chartered excursion train to be advertised to the general public.

During the following three summers he planned and conducted outings for temperance societies and Sunday-school children. In 1844 the Midland Counties Railway Company agreed to make a permanent arrangement with him provided he found the passengers. This success led him to start his own business running rail excursions for pleasure, taking a percentage of the railway tickets.

Next year, he arranged accommodation for a party to travel from Leicester to Liverpool. In 1846, he took 350 people from Leicester on a tour of Scotland, however his lack of commercial ability led him to bankruptcy. He persisted and found success when he claimed that he arranged for over 165,000 people to attend the Great Exhibition in London. Four years later, he planned his first excursion abroad, when he took a group from Leicester to Calais to coincide with the Paris Exhibition. The following year he started his ‘grand circular tours’ of Europe. During the 1860s he took parties to Switzerland, Italy, Egypt and United States. Cook established ‘inclusive independent travel’, whereby the traveller went independently but his agency charged for travel, food and accommodation for a fixed period over any chosen route. Such was his success that the Scottish railway companies withdrew their support between 1862 and 1863 to try the excursion business for themselves.


This Day in History (13-Jun-1325) – Sheik Ibn Battuta begins 1st world trip, Tangiers to Mecca

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta of Tangier, Morocco, started on his Eastward travel when he was 20 years old in 1325. His main reason to travel was to go on a Hajj, or a Pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims want to do. But his traveling went on for about 29 years and he covered about 120,000 kilometers visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries which were then mostly under the governments of Muslim leaders of the World of Islam, or “Dar al-Islam”. At a time when the greatest speed humans could reach was astride a galloping horse, Ibn Batuta’s travel of 120,000 kilometers in 29 years was a remarkable feat. At a steady pace, it would have worked out to a bit under 11 kilometers a day for almost 11,000 days.

Ibn Battuta’s wanderings stretched from Fez to Beijing, and although he resolved not to travel the same path more than once, he made four Hajj pilgrimages to Makkah. He met some 60 heads of state—and served as advisor to two dozen of them. He met many dangers and had many adventures along the way. He was attacked by bandits, almost drowned in a sinking ship, was almost beheaded by a tyrant ruler, and had a few marriages and lovers and fathered several children on his travels! At the end of his travel he returned to Fez, Morocco at the court of Sultan Abu ‘Inan. The Sultan of Morocco insisted that Ibn Battuta dictates the story of his travels to a scholar Ibn Juzay and today we can read translations of that story called “Rihla – My Travels.” It names more than 2000 people whom he met or whose tombs he visited.

His descriptions of life in Turkey, Central Asia, East and West Africa, the Maldives, the Malay Peninsula and parts of India are a leading source of contemporary knowledge about those areas, and in some cases they are the only source. His word-portraits of sovereigns, ministers and other powerful men are often uniquely astute, and are all the more intimate for being colored by his personal experiences and opinions.



This Day in History (28-Apr-2001) – Dennis Tito, becomes the first space tourist by joining the crew of Soyuz TM-32 aboard the International Space Station

After a successful career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dennis Tito, engineer byprofession,  lost his job during massive budget cutbacks NASA suffered in the early 1970s. He went on to study finance at the University of California, Los Angeles. Tito then formed the investment firm Wilshire Associates, where he applied the computer modeling and mathematical analysis he learned as a rocket scientists to the stock market. Tito’s investments made him a wealthy man. During this time, MirCorp , the America-based company had signed a lease to commercialize the Russian space station Mir. It was looking for wealthy clients to become the world’s first space tourists. Tito had earned enough money and wanted to visit space since NASA days. He quickly signed for it.

But due to lack of funding Mir space station was discarded. However Russians had other ideas. They agreed to sell Tito the third seat on a replacement Soyuz spacecraft heading for the International Space Station (ISS) for a reported $20 million. Another American company, Space Adventures, took over responsibility for arranging the flight. NASA officials refused to let Tito train with the cosmonauts stating the timing of the flight was premature. The Russians didn’t budge, and five days later NASA relented. Tito agreed to release NASA from any liability in case anything went wrong and to pay for any damages he caused to the station. He also agreed to stay in the Russian part of ISS.

Launch day came on April 28, 2001. The Soyuz rocket was launched from Kazakhstan. Two days later, Tito’s Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft docked safely at the space station. Tito had become the first space tourist. Tito spent most of the eight-day flight taking pictures, enjoying the weightless environment of space, and performing several experiments. At the end of the stay, Tito and his crew mates climbed aboard the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft and landed safely. “It was paradise,” Tito said, “I just came back from paradise.”