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 (29-Sep-1959) – Arati Saha swims across the English Channel – the first Asian woman to achieve this feat

Arati Saha took to swimming at the age of 4 and was encouraged by her coach Sachin Nag to participate in competitive events. She won many state-level titles between 1945 and 1951 and also set a national record in 1949. Arati was keen to take on a larger challenge. Inspired by the example of Mihir Sen, the first Asian man to swim across the English Channel, she set out to accomplish this feat.

The English Channel, also simply called the Channel, separates England from Europe, specifically the coastal region of Northern France. Its width ranges from 33.1 km (20.6 miles) at the Strait of Dover, where most swimmers attempt the Channel crossing, to 240 km (150 miles) at its widest point. The English Channel connects the North Sea to the Atlantic and is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Swimming across the English Channel is not free of danger, with sharks and stinging jellyfish being particular threats. Strong tides and sheer exhaustion caused during this endurance swim can also prove fatal. At least 8 swimmers have lost their lives while attempting a Channel crossing over the years.

Arati got trained in the arduous process of training, as an endurance feat of this nature requires both physical and mental preparation. Accompanied by a pilot team who helped her navigate through the English Channel, Arati Saha swam across the English Channel from Cape Gris Nez in France to Sandgate on the English coast near Dover on 29th September 1959, when she was just five days away from her 19th birthday. She swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes and covered a distance of 42 miles. After arriving at Sandgate she unfurled the Indian flag as a sign of victory.  The English Channel conquest was not just a victory for her, but also for the women of Asia. It was an eye-opener for the rest of the world, who till then believed that Indian women rarely ventured outside their kitchen gardens. India recognized her inspiring feat by awarding her the Padma Shri in 1960. Arati Saha was also recognized by the Indian Postal Department in 1999, which included her in a series of stamps on pioneering Indian women by issuing a 3 Rupee stamp with her image on it.