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O n the morning of 14 November , a train glided into the Gare du Nord in Paris. It had left London Waterloo three hours earlier with around passengers, then meandered — frustratingly slowly in those days — through Kent. Near Folkestone it dived underground, into a tunnel bored through the chalk under the seabed, before emerging 20 minutes later near Calais, where it could at last accelerate to mph and finally arrive at the French capital three minutes ahead of schedule.
Or rather late, perhaps, depending on how you look at it. After all, it was nearly two centuries earlier, in , that a French mining engineer named Albert Mathieu-Favier first proposed the idea of a tunnel under the Channel. It involved horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps and was quickly abandoned. Numerous other ideas and schemes followed; surveys were carried out and tunnels were even started. Digging began in , but the project was ditched when British politicians and the press stirred up fears of an invasion.
Digging began from both sides in ; on 1 December , two miners, Englishman Graham Fagg and Frenchman Philippe Cozette , broke through the service tunnel and shook hands.
A further four years later, high-speed trains were running through the tunnel. Since then over million passengers have travelled on the Eurostar — including the Queen, presidents, prime ministers, Beatles and Rolling Stones, ambassadors, Wags, fans, and a lot of ordinary people.
I spoke to some of those passengers, and the people who helped them travel. My co-driver Lionel Stevenson and I were told the Friday before that we were rostered on the first train to Paris. The day went very fast. We left Waterloo within a minute of the right time, had a pretty clear run and in northern France we accelerated to kmh. The Eurostar train is a lot faster; we loved that, but it was something we had to get used to. Then there were the different signalling systems; French and Belgian rules and regulations.