Corridors of power…

Fifteen years since the giant boring machines broke through, the Chunnel lurches from bad to worse.

Having narrowly escaped bankruptcy in 1998 (and then only after nearly 19 months of tortuous negotiations), the ill-fated venture is again staring disaster in the face.

The French management is asking creditors – mainly banks and hedge funds – to forego more than £3bn in debt in the interests of keeping the operation intact. Without such a reduction, they say, the Chunnel will be bust in two years.

Debt currently stands at £6.4bn. From 2006, Eurotunnel will have to pay interest charges in cash (like the rest of us, in other words) rather than simply extending its overdraft. The operator will also have to start repaying capital on the debt, not just interest.

Meanwhile, the venture still runs at a loss, blaming a price-war with cross-channel ferries and low-cost airlines. Call me cynical, but didn’t they see that one coming when they drew up their business plan back in the eighties?

The whole mucky affair took its toll on Sir Alastair Morton, the brusque South African who was Eurotunnel’s co-chairman from 1987 to 1996. He died last September at 66. Colin Kirkland, former Eurotunnel technical director, died in January, aged 68.

Eurotunnel’s chairman, Jacques Gounon, is a civil engineer who used to work for Alstom, the French engineering group. As an engineer, he calculates that the Chunnel will soon require huge spending on maintenance to stop it cracking up.

That, one suspects, is the last thing creditors want to hear.

Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times

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