Chunnel Vision

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand alone spoke this week of one of the engineering marvels of the century in the lofty language that it deserves. Everybody else calls it a chunnel.

A French journalist, for example, wonders who will preside over the dining cars of the trains that will rush through the 31-mile tunnel under the English channel. If it's a British chef with cucumber sandwiches, he warns, the French will brown-bag it to England.

An American journalist, recalling that the British drive on the left side of the road and the French on the right, pictures vast junkyards at each end as a result of drivers blinking their way off the car-trains into the daylight and onto the wrong sides of the yellow line.

Those who didn't find it funny found it impossible. For them, the most important items in the Thatcher-Mitterrand agreement to proceed with the tunnel were that nothing is in writing yet and that the banks still have to put up nearly $7 billion for construction costs.

Quips and qualms come easily to a project not easily reduced to human scale, but we are impressed--if only because of what the agreement says about progress in the human condition in the 200 years since the idea was first put forward.

It was only an idea at first, because engineers didn't know exactly where to start. It was dropped in 1880 because the British were afraid that French troops would use it to finish what William started in 1066. It was canceled again in 1970, after some desultory digging at both ends, because the British couldn't afford it.

Today it can be done. It can be done without worrying about inviting an invasion. And there seems to be plenty of money. Mitterrand was right to call it a "grandiose vision for the future." Besides, you don't get seasick in a tunnel.

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