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Documentary : From France to England--Underground : Come with us down inside the $12-billion Channel Tunnel, where diggers have died and progress is measured in inches. When it’s finished, Britain will no longer be an island nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Above ground, work sites at both ends of the cross-channel tunnel under construction between England and France resemble fantastic sets for James Bond movies, full of the same kind of apocalyptic urgency.

Men in hard-hats and orange jumpsuits scramble between work stations at a half-trot. Warning sirens and klaxons from the heavy equipment and sludge trains make for a sense of constant alert as though some maniacal Dr. No or Goldfinger was about to push the Doomsday button.

A large billboard on the English side announces not so encouragingly: “Think Safe! 16 Days Since the Last Major Injury.”

Near the main entry shaft, a rescue team practices the emergency evacuation procedures. Burdened with heavy oxygen tanks, air sampling gauges, gas masks, resuscitators and flashlights, the 24-man rescue team, mostly former coal miners from Wales and Ireland, descend into the darkness on ropes, the beams from their helmet lamps flashing fitfully as they jerk along.

“Most of the danger is from the machinery,” reports rescue team leader Colin Gunter, 40, a veteran of 24 years in the Welsh coal mines, “stumbling in front of a train, falling objects, moving parts, things that can crush you.”

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So far, four men have died building the “Chunnel.” One was hit by a train. Three were crushed to death by the giant tunnel boring machines.

Compared to other grand-scale engineering projects, the death count is fairly low; 34 workers died building the Japanese Seikan Tunnel connecting the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu by rail.

Nevertheless, the sense of danger is palpable, especially on the British side at Shakespeare Cliffs, situated along the famous white chalk cliffs west of Dover, near the setting where the dying King Lear said his last lines in Shakespeare’s play.

The dimensions of the Shakespeare Cliff site are severely limited because of environmental concerns for the fragile countryside in surrounding Kent County. Even the parking lots for the workers’ cars are hidden behind bunkers, as though to disguise the fact one of history’s biggest civil engineering projects is taking place there. The tightness of the operation, the hidden parking lots and the cramped space gives the British side a clandestine, claustrophobic atmosphere.

In contrast, the sprawling French digging site, near the sleepy beach town of Sangatte, six miles west of Calais, is rudely obvious, flaunting itself on the countryside. Spread over 1,606 acres, rising from the sandy soil like a huge instant concrete metropolis with larger-than-life overpasses, waste-water canals and rail terminal buildings, the French site shouts at the visitor that something big is happening here--something big and expensive, another monument to civil engineering like the Egyptian pyramids. Whereas the British site is spread over several locations (rail terminal in Folkstone, concrete works near London) the entire French operation is right there on one site, as they say in Texas, bigger’n Dallas.

Taken together, at opposite sides of the 23-mile-wide point where the tunnel will cross, the two building sites are like open wounds at opposite ends of a submerged organism, streaming men and dirt like blood corpuscles, mucus and flesh.

Indeed, the descent into the tunnel is much like a journey into a living organism. The two main tunnels and the service tunnel are alimentary canals. The workers feed the tunnel huge nine-ton arcs of reinforced concrete, gleaming black cables and steel rails. The sulking, low-slung, sludge cars return with foul-smelling, throat clogging muck. Everything that goes into the ground must pass through the tunnels; everything that comes out must also pass through the tunnels.

Fresh air is forced underground through giant tubes, pushing the old air out before it. Workers are on constant look-out for signs of hemorrhage. Small leaks in the tunnel walks are outlined in white--traces of salt from the evaporated seawater.

At the cutting edge of the project are about 300 workers on each side of the channel who man the giant tunnel boring machines. Eleven such machines are engaged in the project, six to dig the submarine tunnels between the Dover Strait and Pas de Calais and five to dig the land tunnels leading away from the channel to aboveground terminals.

The boring machines work like huge steel-encased worms, consuming earth and depositing a trail of digested worm casings in their wake.

Sealed in each machine, teams of 35 men are digestive agents, lining the cavity of the tunnel with concrete and guiding the muck down the track. The machines, pioneered by American engineers and perfected by the Japanese in their 24-year struggle to build the Seikan Tunnel, perform three functions: They bore the hole, remove the earth and pave the inside of the tunnel with precast concrete segments. All of these tasks are performed as the machine proceeds at a constant, if glacial pace.

“Look at that, wouldja,” piped tunnel pit boss Tom Donoghue. “That’s virgin earth, that.”

Crawling under the central core of the massive Howden Channel Tunnel Boring Machine until he and a visitor were both wet and smeared with mud, Donoghue led the way to the machine’s blunt nose. He opened a porthole-sized hatch. A few feet away was the digging face of the machine, a 95-ton, 28-foot-6-inch-diameter disc, divided into cutting blades the size and shape of windmill sails. As this “cutter disc” rotated, it squeezed moist gray clay and chalk marl onto a conveyor belt that took it to rail disposal cars waiting far back in the tunnel.

The machine and the tunnel workers behind it were advancing, slowly but steadily, at 1.3 inches a minute, 17.5 yards for each eight-hour work shift, 52.5 yards a day, a mile every 33 days.

Despite its crawling pace, the 300-yard-long boring machine, blind as a mole, radiates power; a sense of inexorable progress. The heavy, clay-scented air was thick with a sense of purpose. One had a sudden appreciation for the tunnelers’ work.

Unlike many other jobs, commented Jack Lemley, the American chief executive for the contractors on the project, “Tunneling lends itself to easy measurement. At the end of a day, a tunneler can say he produced so many centimeters, so many meters of tunnel.”

The massive project actually involves the construction of three parallel tunnels: two “running” tunnels that will carry passenger trains and car shuttle trains, and a service tunnel for maintenance and emergency rescue.

The first undersea link-up between the two sides is scheduled to take place in late November, when the two service tunnel teams, one from the French side and one from the British, connect in mid-channel.

If it can overcome serious financing problems (the estimated final price of the project has doubled to more than $12 billion) Eurotunnel, the British-French joint venture sponsoring the effort, hopes to have it in operation by June, 1993.

By then, rail passengers should be able to travel from Paris to London without ever stopping or getting off. Motorists will drive directly onto double-deck rail cars that will scoot them across the strait at speeds approaching 75 m.p.h.

Britain, to the horror of many Britons, will cease to be an island.

In all, 12,000 people are employed in the project in a surprising variety of jobs. There’s an industrial chaplain in the British workers’ camp and a Japanese translator on the French site near Sangatte, where Japanese equipment is used in some of the digging.

It is hard to imagine what the workers from the two sides will do when they finally confront each other under the channel. The two work forces could hardly be more different in style. The French workers, for example, have given women’s names to their boring machines--Brigitte, Europa, Catherine, Virginie, Pascaline and Severine.

The British insist on calling them by their most technical functional names: “Land Running Tunnel South Tunnel Boring Machine,” “Marine Service Tunnel Boring Machine"--and so on.

There are fewer rules on the French side. Workers are permitted to smoke cigarettes on the job, for example; on the English side, smoking is prohibited. English workers are required to carry “self-rescuer” kits--stainless-steel canisters that convert toxic carbon monoxide into non-toxic carbon dioxide in the case of fire or explosion.

But the kits, worn on hip belts, are bulky and awkward, and the more stylish French workers do not wear them.

“The English side tends to be more authoritarian, with directions coming from the top and working down,” said Lemley, who has to use translators to communicate with his French workers. “The French operate more on the basis of dialogue.”

On the French side, the workers tend to be young men, mostly in their early 20s, who come from the economically depressed area immediately surrounding the tunnel site, including the cities of Calais and Dunkirk and Lille.

On the British side, most of the workers are older, many with coal-mining experience. The majority of the English-side workers come not from the affluent nearby areas of Kent County but from the economically troubled north of England, Ireland and Wales.

As a result, the social dynamic among the English-side workers often hinges on the division of north and south that divides England itself.

“Don’t talk to him; he’s a southerner,” Donoghue, 40, a northerner from Lancashire, joked after he saw a reporter talking to Dave Thorpe, 42.

“It’s true, I’m a southerner,” said Thorpe, from the Kent city of Lyminge. “A lot of my neighbors don’t like what we are doing here. They claim we are ruining the land of Kent, ‘the Garden of England.’ I’ve been called a traitor and all sorts of things.”

On the French side, great care is taken to observe the traditions of French life. A worker who breaks out his sandwich during the half-hour break receives a chorus of “Bon appetit!” from his fellow workers. A French tunneler leaving work after his shift shakes hands with all the workers coming on duty.

Five miles under the channel, French worker Salvator Salvaggio, 24, was operating his hand-held control box, a device with 26 buttons and two toggles that positions the nine-ton concrete sections on the tunnel walls, as though he were playing an electric keyboard on a musical instrument.

As he worked, he talked about the ambience of the tunnel work and the joy of working with his comrades on the chantier du siecle (work project of the century). He is single and lives alone in an apartment on the French coast, and he said he used his wages to buy a hot Renault 20 “Jet Turbo” car. He looked like a movie star.

On the other side of the channel, one mile under Kent County in Land Running Tunnel South, “leading miner” Tom Mitchell, 45, said there was only one thing he liked about tunnel work:

“Four p.m., when we finish.”

‘The Chunnel’: Fourth Time’s the Charm

Has anybody ever tried this before? The idea of a tunnel beneath the English Channel goes back at least to the time of Napoleon at the start of the 19th Century, and digging has actually begun three times. One effort was abandoned in 1884, another in 1923, and the third in 1974--all because the invasion-conscious English soured on the idea.

COMPARATIVE TRAVEL TIMES LONDON TO PARIS: Sea Ferry: 8 hours Airplane: 3 hours By Tunnel Train: 3 hours

ENGLISH CHANNEL: Tunnel runs 80-130 feet below the seabed.

How much will it cost?: $1.2 billion dollars, according to the latest estimate, double the original target.

Trains: Will carry vehicles and passengers through two one-way tunnels.

How long is it?: 30.7 miles--equivalent to the distance from Marina del Rey to Catalina, or a freeway trip from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Ana.


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