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The Chunnel is far more than Eurostar

Road Trip 2011: CNET gets a rare behind-the-scenes look at the operations of the Eurotunnel, the longest underwater tunnel in the world, and it's not just the Eurostar. It's trucks, cars, and even dogs.

Sitting in her seat in the front cab of her train, Tracy, the driver of a Eurotunnel train explains her job being part of a system that carries more than 16 million passengers a year under the English Channel. And that is far more than just Eurostar travelers along. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CALAIS, France--I'm sitting in a train doing something more than 265 million people have done before--enter the Chunnel for a crossing between France and England. But I've got a seat very few of them have ever had: in the cab, next to the driver of the train, and we're looking directly at the mouth of the world-famous tunnel.

This is a spot I didn't expect to ever be in, but I've come here as part of Road Trip 2011, and I'm getting a behind-the-scenes look at Eurotunnel, the under-the English Channel crossing, putting me in what I have to admit is a pretty enviable position.

The driver's name is Tracy, and as she pushes forward on a small black joystick, the train--which is pulling 24 carriages, each of which can carry up to five cars, trucks, RVs or buses--breaks out of the bright sunshine into the blackness of the tunnel. We've started our 31-mile journey from mainland Europe to the British Islands.

Not just Eurostar
Most Americans have never heard of the Eurotunnel. They know of it only as the Chunnel, and when they think about it, only one thing comes to mind: the Eurostar, the famous high-speed train that makes 50 runs a day between London and either Paris or Brussels. But the Eurostar is just one of many Eurotunnel customers, and one that makes up just 11 percent of its traffic. The bulk of the rest is mainly Eurotunnel's own trains--which can carry passenger cars, cargo trucks, buses, shipping containers, and much more.

Indeed, because the Eurotunnel offers shipping firms, individual travelers, and everyone in between a quick and easy ride between France and England, the longstanding ferry businesses that for so many years controlled traffic across the English Channel are facing what could be their strongest competition ever. Driving your car across on a ferry can take two hours. Going through the Eurotunnel--which is actually two side-by-side one-way tubes--takes just 35 minutes.

The Chunnel opened for business in 1994, and while it took awhile before people really began to believe in it as an alternative for getting across the Channel, it is now an entirely accepted route. Yet in the United States, it barely registers. Even in France, I'm told, some people still don't get what Eurotunnel is.

But every 15 minutes, all day long, seven days a week, 365 days a year, a train departs from one side or the other, meaning there is usually more than one train making the crossing. It could be one with the 24 passenger wagons, or one with as many as 32 wagons hauling trucks or other cargo. And with London hosting the Olympics in 2012, the demand for trips through the Chunnel is only going to increase.

And that's why here in Calais, just short of the Channel, in what the Eurotunnel company says is the largest train maintenance shop in Europe, two shifts a day are working to upgrade its 57 locomotives to be able to handle the increased traffic that's coming its way. They're getting new engines--that produce 7 megawatts of power instead of the 5.6 megawatts they used to generate--and that means longer trains capable of carrying more people and cargo. And the company that built it hopes that with all those new people, perhaps the world at large will better understand that there's more to the Chunnel than Eurostar.

Today, 16 million people travel through the tunnel every year. But that number is expected to jump by around 4 million soon. That's because Eurostar will soon be adding 10 new high-speed trains, and last fall, Germany's Deutsche Bahn said it would imminently be taking advantage of relaxed controls on who could run trains through by offering its own passenger trains to and from London. Trips haven't begun yet because France and England have yet to determine exactly how to regulate the new traffic, but it is expected that such trips will be starting shortly.

Control center
While riding through the Chunnel in the cab of a train is without a doubt a lifetime highlight, it goes hand in hand with another part of my visit: to the Eurotunnel Railway Control Center in Folkstone, England.

There, teams work 24 hours a day to monitor all the train traffic and logistics of the tunnel. And watching them do this is just about as fascinating as being at the front of one of the trains. According to Simon LeJeune, the real-time engineering systems manager for Eurotunnel, the huge digital board that is located at the front of the control center is the world's largest digital control board. And I can believe it. It stretches from one side of the cavernous room to the other, and what at first appears to be a chaotic jumble of green, yellow, and red lines soon becomes clear as a sophisticated system (see video below) for tracking every train that goes through the tunnels.

On one side is a wide collection of lines representing the tracks at the French-side terminal in Calais, and at the opposite end is a similar collection of lines for the English terminal in Folkstone. There is a numbering system that identifies each train--if the number has a "7" in front of it, it's a train carrying cargo trucks--and lines that signify trains connecting directly to one of the French high-speed passenger lines.

I've been to control centers in many different places, including NASA's Johnson Space Center, various military bases, and other locations, but knowing what this one manages made it hard to beat. After all, it's the biggest of its kind in the world. And the people running it have overseen 265 million passengers making the crossing through the world's largest underwater tunnel since 1994. Those are some serious superlatives.