British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand on Wednesday exchanged ratified copies of a treaty to build a tunnel under the English Channel, a project that has been on the drawing board more than 200 years.
The tunnel is to be built entirely with private funds, but a treaty, signed last year by Mitterrand and Thatcher, had to be ratified by the two national parliaments to give the British-French consortium Eurotunnel a concession and enable it to raise funds from banks and investors. The total cost of the project is estimated at about $8 billion, making it the largest private financing ever attempted.
"No one would have been more thrilled than Queen Victoria, who always saw a channel tunnel as offering salvation from her dread of sea sickness," said Thatcher, speaking in French at the exchange ceremony at the Elysee Palace.
Mitterrand said jokingly that although Britain will no longer be cut off from continental Europe, he did not expect what he called the English "insular spirit" to disappear.
Digging has begun on the French side near Calais for the 31-mile tunnel, expected to be finished in 1993, that will take 30 million passengers and 16 million tons of freight under the channel in its first year.
Current plans call for three parallel tubes, with cars and trucks driving onto special trains that would zip them under the channel in 35 minutes at 100 m.p.h.
National railways of Britain and France still are negotiating about a high-speed train link that could cut travel time between London and Paris to just over three hours, compared with the current six.