Sunday, November 8, 2009

Underground Railroad

This isn't a post about abolishionists helping runaway slaves find their way north.

This past Friday (Nov. 6) another underground railroad (and a marvel of engineering) celebrated 15 and a half years of moving people under the English Channel. Congratulations. Or happy 15 and a half birthday.

North Americans are fond of calling the Channel Tunnel the "Chunnel", although Europeans are not as keen on that nickname. The French call it Le tunnel sous la Manche, meaning... ummm... Don Quixote's Tunnel. I think.

The tunnel runs from Coquelles to Folkestone, which is very close to the narrowest point of the English Channel. Why not Calais to Dover? Who knows.

Those of us on this side of the pond mostly envision a big tunnel with two lanes of traffic to drive your car through, with a toll booth greeting you before you enter. "That'll be 30 pounds, please." Or 40 Euros. Or 12,000,000 Francs. Or whatever France is using for money now. Probably Euros. Oddly, the British still weigh their money in pounds rather than kilos. Fact. A sterling practice, that.

But the truth is, vehicles (and people and freight - and animals too, I suppose) are shuttled by trains through the tunnel. Most of you are waiting for more facts, so here you go:

(I stole these from a variety of websites, including one who billed his list "Amazing Chunnel Facts").

1. "The Chunnel is one of Europe's biggest infrastructure projects ever." [Well big effing DUH.]

2. "Consists of three interconnecting tubes; one train track each way and a small service tunnel." [The word "interconnecting" was not really needed, in my opinion.]

3. "Its length is 31.4 miles, of which 23 are underwater." [Shame that the channel is 51 miles wide at that point. Kidding. JaJaJa.]

4. "The tunnel goes as deep as 150 meters under the sea." (I'm guessing that is, like, 65 feet. Maybe more. Probably more.)

5. "It takes only about 20 minutes [bet it seems like a century] to cover the length of the tunnel under the sea." [Ok, we GET that it is under the sea. You can start leaving that part out.]

6. "There are a total of 95 miles of tunnels." [Why? I thought you said 31 miles! And it only takes 20 minutes? Lying sack. Oh, wait. I get it - 3 tunnels. Okay.]

7. "The tunnel was constructed by nearly 13,000 engineers and workers." [Are you saying engineers don't work? What was the ratio - 3 to 1, something like that? With that many engineers, no wonder you ended up with 95 miles of tunnel.]

8. "The volume of rubble removed from the tunnel is 3 times greater than the Chepos Pyramid in Egypt, and increased the size of Britain by 90 acres, which is the equivalent of 65 football fields [for those who prefer to measure their rubble in football fields rather than acres] and this area has been made into a park." [I'm guessing you meant to say "Cheops", but thank you for saying "Egypt" because I was thinking of southern Indiana until you said Egypt.]

9. "They called the park Coney Island." [I just made that up to keep you reading.]

10. Okay, I'm starting to doubt this guy. Going to Wikipedia now.

A. Wikipedia says at its deepest point it is 75 meters deep. [Discrepancy in depth probably due to the excess of engineers.]

B. Wikipedia: Construction started in 1988 and completed in 1994, amazingly only 80% over budget. [Considering the French only have a 3-day work week, I mean.]

C. Fires have disrupted operation of the tunnel.

D. Illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers heading to England have been a problem. [None headed to France it seems. Or no mention.]

E. The Chunnel consist of three tunnels: two 25-foot bores 98 feet apart (the railroad tunnels), and a 16-foot diameter service tunnel in between the railroad tunnels.

F. Cost was 4650 million pounds. 10 workers were killed.

G. With additions of track and stations since the tunnel opened, one can now ride the train from London to Paris.

H. On high-speed trains traveling up to 186 miles per hour (300 kph), the trip from London to Paris takes about 2 hours 15 minutes. You can go from London to Brussels in one hour 51 minutes.

I. Eurostar carried 9,113,371 passengers beneath the channel in 2008. (This is just passengers, not autos or freight.)

J. According to the Eurostar website, a one-way ticket is about US$147. Ouch. Airfare, London to Paris is $144 (according to Expedia) and that is round trip. I don't know. I guess if you have your car the tunnel is the way to go, but not otherwise. Unless I'm missing something.

Fun (though admittedly unrelated) fact about other underground railroads: You knew that John Brown was a wild-eyed abolitionist, but did you know that Wild Bill Hickok's father's farm in Indiana was a stop on the Underground Railroad? And that the young Wild learned to shoot well defending the farm/station from... ummm... who? That's a poser. Never mind.


  1. 1. "Le tunnel sous la Manche, meaning... ummm... Don Quixote's Tunnel. I think." - *shakes head*

    2. France does use Euros.

    3. Your ignorance of the metric system (and its myriad benefits) hurts my scientist head. Perhaps one of the quickest and most effective ways to help improve US children's international standing in math would be to eradicate "standard" units once and for all. It would also simplify, streamline and reduce manufacturing costs (which the automotive industry realize DECADES ago, more than off-setting the cost of conversion), improve exportability of our manufactured products, and reduce the potential for error in many different places since science/medicine/high end instruments all universally use metric (as does the rest of the world) and we're still in the dark ages unit-wise.

    3) I can't remember the last time a government product came in at less that twice the original estimate. Perhaps the length of the work week is less important than having one's government held hostage to large contractors. Maybe happy healthy workers who aren't worked into the ground are more productive. Who knew?

    4) Whenever John Brown is mentioned, I can't help thinking about Harper's Ferry. When we lived in Maryland, that was my father's defacto "place to take them" along with, of course, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

  2. And return Eurostar fares start at £59.

  3. Are you psychic? :) I have just emerged from the aforementioned tunnel, the one belonging to Don Quixote. Et voilà, je suis arrivée!

    You can get some very good deals on Eurostar and Eurotunnel (Eurotunnel being the one with the car). £39 with the car and as many passengers as you can fit in. Not only can you get good deals with Eurostar, it's far more convenient than flying and door to door takes much the same time.

  4. @Stephanie - You are starting up again. :) I am (probably) not ignorant of as many things as you think I am. I write humorously at times. Part of my humor is taking jabs at people who think their way of thinking is "obviously" the right way to think. But you knew that already. Our main challenge is still the same: you and I don't agree about many things, such as the metric system being the answer to many things that are wrong in the U.S. (And sometimes your sense of humor is pretty hard to find. Do me a favor and run a few jokes next Saturday instead of quotes. I'm serious: I want to find out what things you find funny.)

  5. PS - France does indeed use the Euro as its currency. So do Cyprus and Malta. I will admit to being pretty ignorant on most things French. :)

  6. @A. - For some reason I never though that you stayed seated in your car during the trip. Of course.

    En effet, vous êtes arrivés. Je suis heureux. Honest. :)

    Of course it is more convenient than flying. Silly me. The real price is much lower than what Eurostar wants to charge Americans on their site. I will remember that. :)

  7. All I know about France is how to make crepes. That and the fact they drink their milk (goats milk at that) warm. EEwwww.

  8. @Petra - You know lots more about France than that. And don't tell me you don't drink your goat's milk all warm and clotty. You protest too much. Ewe.

    Tell me how to make crepes, Suzette. I mean Petra.

  9. Check previous Saturdays. I've run funny quotes at least twice in the last month or so.

    There are usually humorous quotes on every week.

    (As to humor, when you deal with the needless waste and risk daily unnecessarily because of something, it's harder to laugh over it - like metric). If your humorous dealings with metric didn't reflect ACTUAL responses I've heard from people who should know better, I undoubtedly would have found it more funny.

  10. I took the bike through the tunnel on my first trip abroad to Holland, I could only just about walk with tendon damage on my right ankle, but was still determined to go. The tunnel is quick and fast (although we bikers have to stay with our vehicles so no seats) and 35 minutes after arriving at Dover, waiting in the queue, we were in France and heading over to Holland. I dropped the bike on my ankle somewhere in belgium but that is a whole other story indeed.

  11. @Stephanie B - A humorous quote is not the same thing as telling a joke. You can do it. :) Well, don't get too mad yet about metrics 'cause that subject is only just beginning. Heh.

    @Sage - Speaking of telling jokes! I don't mean about your dropping your bike on your sore ankle, I mean your bear bait story. I love it! (But I still want to hear the story of how you hurt your foot in the first place.) :)

  12. @Stephanie B - I must admit I had to wait a few days to answer your comment (related to the metric system) so that I wouldn't say something I would regret later. I am a little cooled off now, so I will try to address your "scientific" arrogance.

    "Your ignorance of the metric system (and its myriad benefits) hurts my scientist head."

    I will let your insulting comment mostly pass, however I WILL remind you that there were a hell of lot of scientific minds that were probably equal to yours that existed here before the metric system was in wide use in the scientific community, and one or two of them MAY have discovered some worthwhile things.

    I am sorry my ignorance hurts your scientific head, but the fact that a person uses the metric system to measure things doesn't in itself make that person smarter than other people who use different units, as you postulate...

    "Perhaps one of the quickest and most effective ways to help improve US children's international standing in math would be to eradicate "standard" units once and for all."

    So that's the secret? Then how do you account for the fact that U.S. children once led the world in math and science? And they (and much of the rest of the world) were using stupid things like miles and quarts to measure things? I think you would be well-advised to rethink your position on why American school children are behind the rest of the world. If you think hard enough, you will come up with many other things that are wrong with our educational system today, and metrics is not even on the short list.

    "It would also simplify, streamline and reduce manufacturing costs (which the automotive industry realize DECADES ago, more than off-setting the cost of conversion), improve exportability of our manufactured products,[...]"

    I think you may find the auto industry in the U.S. started using metrics in their manufacturing process when the cars started being manufactured in Canada and Mexico, rather than because of some scientific enlightenment at Ford and GM. I also think our auto industry hasn't been a model of economic efficiency since the metric implementation, since they are all bankrupt today. So forget the shining example of our auto companies.

    What other products have had their exports enhanced by using the metric system? Potato chips? McDonald's hamburgers? Much of our exports are in the form of food - grains which are already measured in metric tons. Not that the starving people of the world would give a damn if we provided wheat to them by the pound. Metrics just doesn't matter much to people outside the elite scientific community.

    As you may have guessed, I have a very long post lined up dedicated to debunking the magic of metrics. I hope you'll do me the honor of reading it when it posts.

  13. My ignorance comment is a direct reply to what I hope was the joke of ""The tunnel goes as deep as 150 meters under the sea." (I'm guessing that is, like, 65 feet. Maybe more. Probably more.)" - can tell a joke but not take one, Relax Max? I know freaking engineers who could make the same damn mistake.

    We were ahead. No more. And I would not be the first to cite the simplicity and intuitive use of metric as a factor in why India and the Far East are pulling ahead.

    Feel free to "debunk" the magic of metrics - if you can. I didn't challenge the "whys" of the automotive industry, but the effects. GM set up a task force to figure out the costs, then quietly disbanded it when they realized it actually saved them money - fewer tools, standardized sizes, fewer errors.

    I wrote an international paper on this two years ago. Feel free to put me in my place (again, if you think you can). By the way, the scientific community has been using metric probably far longer than you ever suspected, certainly more than 100 years. Why? Because, physics doesn't work the same in "standard units," that's why such hideous units as "slugs" were invented.

    I have my sources already in hand. Hope your sources are as good. :)

  14. Physics doesn't work the same in "Standard Units"? Whoa.

  15. Stephanie, the disparity between 65 feet and 150 meters is so great that nobody, not even a troubled engineer or a fifth grader could fail to see it was a joke.

  16. How are assembly line workers going to make fewer mistakes with metric parts and metric tools? All they do is put the stuff together. What am I missing? (This is a serious question.)

  17. @Stephanie B - I suppose if I were as smart as I think I am, I would try to bow out gracefully and defer to your superior intellect and education. But when you spew such nonsense as India is pulling ahead because they embrace the metric system, I just can't help rising to the bait. Are you serious? Really? You honestly think that is a main reason and not something that is merely incidental? All we have to do is stop holding our kids back by not teaching fractions?

  18. This is going to be fun, but hardly will work in comments. Yay!

    I love this sort of thing!



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