FOLKESTONE, England -- The sprawling complexity of ramps, rails, roadways bridges and platforms at the British end of the Channel Tunnel awaits traffic in faintly ghostlike suspense under a thin fog rolling in from the sea.
Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and President Francois Mitterrand of France will be here Friday to celebrate the opening of the "Chunnel" and the connection of Britain and Europe for the first time in an ice age.
The moment will mark the climax of 10 days of inauguration festivities here and in Calais, France. They're celebrating the completion, if not the real opening, of the longest "submarine" tunnel in the world -- 38 kilometers, or about 23.5 miles, under the seabed of the English Channel -- and probably the most complicated.
From portal to portal, the tunnel, actually two single-track rail tubes and a service tunnel, runs 50 kilometers (31 miles). Eurotunnel says its drive-on, drive-off Le Shuttle train service for freight and automobiles will take 35 minutes, with about 26 minutes spent in the tunnel -- about an hour altogether from entrance to exit.
The queen and the French president will travel through on a special train to take the symbolic inauguration ceremonies to Calais.
But lesser mortals will have to wait before they can take the same trip. Tunnel authorities remain coy about just when that will be. They have pushed the date back several times, to the dismay of their banker backers and investment firms who see a summer's business lost.
The Chunnel is essentially a rail system carrying cars and buses and what the British call "heavy goods" vehicles on separate passenger and freight shuttles.
The French and British national railways will use the tunnel to run through-trains for passengers (Eurostar) and freight between the United Kingdom and Europe.
The Eurotunnel service for truckers may begin soon. But a full schedule of passenger service through the tunnel will probably not be operating until March.
Widely hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century, the $15 billion Chunnel project already fulfills old dreams and raises old fears.
Britain, "this sceptered" (and secure) isle, has all of a sudden acquired a long-dreaded border with France: Point M in the tunnel, where a plaque marks the frontier 19 kilometers from the French coast and 18 kilometers from the British coast.
Since 1751, 26 attempts have been made to design a tunnel that would connect Europe to Britain, as the London tabloid that reported "Heavy Fog Over Channel, Continent Cut Off" no doubt would view the accomplishment.
Colonel Beaumont's effort
Fear of invasion from the Continent ended most of them, including Colonel F. E. Beaumont's 1882 attempt to bore a tunnel at about the same place and depth as the Chunnel.
The colonel advanced his tunnel a mile and a quarter toward Calais before it was deemed a military risk.
But Beaumont's failure provided Eurotunnel with evidence for the feasibility of their project. Cut through soft, impermeable rock called chalk marl, his tunnel has remained bone dry for more than a century.
The new tunnel follows the same chalk marl, 80 to 150 feet beneath the seabed, for most of its length, except for a bit off the Shakespeare Cliff on this side and about 5 kilometers before Calais, where sand, muck and fissured wet rock prevail.
Digging began at Shakespeare Cliff on Dec. 1, 1987, and in France a month later. All three tunnels were finished by the end of June 1991. Huge Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) gnawed forward at nearly 1,000 feet a week, tossing up some 9.1 million cubic meters of spoil.
One TBM now sits at the elaborate visitors center here, looking something like a cross between a wind tunnel and a very, very, very large rotary shaver. It's painted with a sign, like a used car: "For Sale/One Careful Owner."
The French and British construction crews connected Dec. 1, 1990. They broke through about 13.6 miles from Shakespeare Cliff and 9.6 miles from Sangette in France. They were out of line only about 4 inches vertically and 19.6 inches horizontally.
Eight thousand eight hundred workers took part in the construction of the tunnels.
The finished, concrete-lined rail tunnels are 24.9 feet in diameter, the service tunnel 15.7 feet. The rail tunnels each have one track and the trains run on the left-hand system like British roads: France-bound in the north tunnel, toward Britain in the south.
Here at Folkestone, the tunnel portal seems almost insignificant at the end of a terminal area that takes up 346 acres and looks like a series of dams designed to channel a flood into a storm drain.
The terminal at Calais is three times as big: 1,186 acres. There was more space. Here the terminal is jammed between the M20 Motorway and an escarpment that rises steeply from a perimeter roadway.
High-speed Eurostar passenger service may begin with one train a day running between London and Paris through the tunnel in July. Similar service will be extended to Brussels, Belgium, a little later. But don't expect the full schedule of 15 daily trains each way until next year.
High speed occurs mostly in France, where trains reach 186 mph. Britain is slowly upgrading the rail lines between the tunnel and London's Waterloo Station, where a newly built airport-type terminal has been waiting almost a year for Eurostar trains. But trains can manage 100 mph on parts of the Folkestone-Waterloo link.
British travel experts think the three-hour, 310-mile Eurostar Paris-London run can be extremely competitive with air travel. Flight time takes about an hour, but getting to and from airports and checking in can take another 2 1/2 hours.
Eurostar won't quote fares but insists they'll be competitive with air fares. Analysts here say they'll have to be. British Air's regular fare is about $405 round trip. They offer a no-refund round trip, including a stay of at least one Saturday, for $232. Air France offers the same deal for $162.
Eurotunnel's highly touted "turn-up-and-go" Le Shuttle service from here to Calais for cars and their occupants is expected to begin in a very limited way only in October. Right now tents for this week's celebration are pitched in the "Allocation Zone" at the terminal here.
The Allocation Zone is where autos cars will be routed to train platforms when the terminal's up and running.
Eurotunnel is prepared for a flood of cars, trucks, motorcycles, caravans, campers, but no livestock, no hazardous materials and definitely no walk-ons.
Folkestone is strictly a vehicle terminal. Eurotunnel likes to call the system a "rolling motorway."
Le Shuttle for autos will typically be a 24-car train, divided into "racks"-- 12 double-decker coaches for cars, 12 with a single deck for buses, campers and cars with trailers.
Automobiles will pass through a toll plaza, frontier controls, security checks and the Allocation Zone on the way onto the train. They'll drive on through side-loading cars at the rear of each rack.
At their journey's end they'll drive off at the front of the rack and out of the terminal.
The shuttle's rolling stock is sophisticated and expensive, but rather spartan. Passengers can get out of their autos but there's no place to go but to the toilet -- one for every three cars. There are no refreshments and no place to sit except in your car.
The passenger trains are designed to be fire resistant for half an hour and are separated by fire doors. Elaborate safety plans include evacuation through cross-tunnels linking the rail and service tunnels every 410 yards.
Truckers get a club car with light refreshment, mostly because their vehicles are carried on open, lightly framed cars designed to save weight but through which fire could spread more easily.
Eurotunnel estimates that at first trains will leave every 15 to 20 minutes during the day and once an hour at night.
But Dr. Richard Clutterbuck, a security risk consultant, cites estimates that there could be up to 20,000 passengers in the tunnel at any one time if it ever reaches peak capacity.
In a research paper just published, he says the tunnel is "far more secure than the London Underground." But while the tunnel is still a novelty, he says, there will be an incentive for "terrorists or other malicious persons to grab headlines by blocking it."
After the novelty wears off, Dr. Clutterbuck says, the main threat will come from the growth of international organized crime, drug and arms smuggling, and illegal immigration.
Characteristically, Britons also worry about rabies crossing the channel by the tunnel. The disease is virtually nonexistent in Britain. Pets arriving here are kept in quarantine for six months.
But a series of high-security fences, a "hostile" environment at the portals, electrical barriers at each end of the undersea sections and 24-hour surveillance make it unlikely "rabies-susceptible" animals, not to mention undesirable human beings, could sneak through the tunnel.
Ferry boat operators have shrugged off their initial fears about competition from the tunnel. Rates are comparable, and some Hovercraft ferries make the crossing in a neat 35 minutes, too.
The bigger slower ferries take about 75 minutes from Dover to Calais, but they offer bars, lounges, restaurants, duty-free shopping malls, play areas for the kids, movies and, on a clear day, the blue sky and the sun-dappled sea.