“Getlink” is the name of the overarching company that operates the Channel tunnel, linking Kent with France. So it was interesting to tune in to an interview with Getlink’s Director of Public Affairs, John Keefe, in an ongoing series organised by the French civic group, Cercle de synergie Côte d’Opale. Côte d’Opale is the area of French coastland opposite Kent, containing Dunkerque, Boulogne, Calais (and some 27 other small towns).
John Keefe has lived and worked there for 28 years, having arrived there in 1993. He has been employed in the development and management of the Channel Tunnel project since then. He spoke of how they had to manage materials, tools, staff, and develop operating manuals. Listening to his account of this (in fluent French although he is a native Briton) I felt awed by this account of his life’s work, knowing its significance for those of us who live on either side of the Channel.
What is Getlink?
The prime task of Getlink is to manage the tunnel, above all according to strict security protocols. But alongside that, Getlink manages side activities such as the Europorte freight service, the rail operations, and the cross-Channel electricity cable.
The ElecLink electricity cable
This will bring 1 GigaWatt of electricity through the Channel Tunnel from the middle of next year. Interconnectors have been in the news lately, because of the fire on the IFA cable at the Sellindge connection point. This reduced its capacity to bring electricity from the continent. The good news is that this is quite separate from the ElecLink cable. So it won’t impact its entry into service. The bad news John Keefe disclosed is that the IFA cable was so badly damaged that it could take at least a year until it can resume carrying a full load. But he emphasised that the ElecLink cable works with a more modern and safer technology.
Sharing electricity across the Channel allows the UK to access the surplus energy from French nuclear power, and eventually for France to access surplus renewable energy from UK windfarms. The one-hour time difference helps to even out the usage, with French peak time at midday.
John said that passenger numbers are beginning to rise again, as Covid restrictions are reduced. They have introduced “the passenger wallet” to ease the task of preparing evidence required at the borders. When asked (by me) what plans there are for the Eurostar to stop again at Ashford International, he replied that it is a decision for Eurostar, not Getlink. Eurostar normally carries more than 11 million passengers per year.
He praised the efficient procedures that have been developed to overcome Brexit customs barriers, especially Eurotunnel’s Border Pass. Even lorries arriving with mixed loads can now get processed quickly providing they have uploaded the full lists of what they are carrying. The software is working well, and Customs officials on both sides are keen to keep the lorry traffic (some 1.5m per year) flowing smoothly.
Rail freight subsidiary, Europorte
Getlink has a railfreight subsidiary, Europorte, operating between France, Belgium and Germany. It operates freight trains for cereals and chemicals, to industries in Belgium and Germany. And now Getlink are developing a new project, with the freight company Cargobeamer, to take driverless lorries onto trains at Coquelles and take them off at Ashford.
I am intrigued by this news, as there is not currently suitable space at Ashford International station. Clearly it would not be desirable for HGVs to go through the suburbs of Ashford to get to the M20. What must be planned is the development of a new facility at the Sevington lorry park. This spans from the M20 across to the railway, where new purpose-built platforms could be constructed.
The interviewer asked whether the British railway lines could take more freight. John replied that there are plans for trains to take rail freight further north than London. I would have liked more detailed questioning at this point. I had earlier been informed that one of the problems of getting rail freight through or around London is that the lines are just too congested with commuter traffic to timetable freight.
Un “Métro Trans-Manche”
The interviewer said that the head of local government on the French side proposed a cross-Channel “Metro”. I guess this means regular commuter trains. John’s reply was that the pandemic has meant that many people who work from home are reassessing their location.
Population density in Kent is 494 per km2, while in northern France it is a lower 189 per km2. House prices in Kent are shooting up. And it might become a good option for some to relocate to northern France, especially if they need to go in person to their UK offices only occasionally. They will tick off the advantages of a northern French town: cheaper house for the size, near a good supermarket, good health facilities etc. But the barrier would be the new post-Brexit visa rule that allows for only a 90 day stay in the EU.
The interviewer mentioned that there has been an application from the Spanish railways to run a train through the tunnel via Paris to London. John emphasised that Getlink just manages the tunnel as an open access railway.
But there are time slots available for further applications like this one, so long as security protocols are observed and the project is financially sound. Eurotunnel are talking to lots of operators about the possibility of running more trains in the future.
The hoteliers and restaurateurs of northern France are longing for the return of the British tourists. John emphasised that Britons are indeed longing to come, and adore France. But it is only Covid restrictions that deter people currently. Britons also love duty-free. Getlink has recently reopened the duty-free at Folkestone, and there will be one at Calais soon.
The company is following the plans for a new Disney style resort near Ebbsfleet. The interviewer suggested a scheme whereby customers could come from France without passports, to enjoy the resort.
John replied that most tourists would probably also like to bring their cars and explore the many other attractions of Kent as well. Especially since Kent was named as a Top Ten Destination in this year’s Lonely Planet Travel Guide. But of course there is then the issue of more traffic pollution.
I was keen to follow up with a question on whether more could be done for rail tourists. For example we could travel as local rail passengers and get out at Calais. However, I did not get an answer because someone else was pursuing the matter of buses on le Shuttle. It is important to revive these for tourists, because this is the best way for parties of schoolchildren to go on short cross-Channel trips.
The interviewer was enthusiastic for more language-learning and suggested more exchanges of teachers. John tactfully avoided mentioning the nub of the problem on the British side. (That is the downgrading of foreign languages in the Secondary school curriculum.) But he emphasised that language-learning was a personal choice and commitment.
He himself had come to France because of his wife’s work. She was already fluent in French. So when, after a few months, they decided to stay on (and he was employed on the new Channel Tunnel project) she insisted that he had to learn French.
Incidentally, I wonder if the growing numbers of English families who did settle in France have produced near bilingual children who are now working in cross-border operations with Getlink or the Border force.
Training for the railways
After 27 years of operations around the Channel Tunnel, Getlink now has matchless resources. These can assist with the development of railways elsewhere in the world. John Keefe’s successor as Head of Training for Getlink is now managing an International Rail Training College. It takes 100 or so trainees in various cadres, such as train drivers, rail technicians, freight managers and so on.
I can’t help wondering if a counterpart for this could not also be developed in Ashford, especially if the headquarters of Network Rail can be located here.