Seeking inspiration from the Eurotunnel for project management

Seeking inspiration from the Eurotunnel for project management


The dream to build a tunnel to link UK and France dates back to two centuries. During Napoleons rein and in the 19th century many proposals were made to build a tunnel under the English Channel.  French engineer Thomé de Gamond spent most of his life attempting to find practical solutions. He is also called the father of the Eurotunnel. In fact, in the 1880s digging actually began to build a tunnel. But the plan was immediately aborted due to fear of invasion and other political reasons.

The dream came true when its construction began in 1986 / 1987. The Eurotunnel is one of the greatest engineering and political accomplishments of the 20th century. Its scope is so large that it is impossible to talk in detail about it in this blog post. But we will talk about it briefly from a project management perspective and highlight some important aspects of the project and what project managers can learn from it.

Since the project was unprecedented and colossal, the French and British governments decided to hold a contest. The contest encourages companies to propose ideas, plans and designs and to create a link across the English Channel. Many proposals were received that included various forms of tunnels and bridges. Some designs were so extravagant that they were immediately dismissed and some others were extremely expensive and unfeasible. A proposal submitted by the Balfour Beatty Construction Company (which later became the Transmache link) to build a tunnel under the English Channel was later accepted.

This is a very ingenious way of proceeding when a project is very challenging. If a project manager has a challenge or a problem to solve he can organize a companywide contest to seek the best solution. This not only helps promote the project but also creates a sense of belonging to the project.

From a project management perspective, the construction project was sponsored by two governments and then led and completed by a private company who employed local construction teams on each side. Each side were further divided into other teams according to specialty, tasks and responsibilities. To avoid conflicts of interest, the Eurotunnel was also privately funded, which is rare for large-scale public infrastructure projects. Finally, the scale and complexity of the project called for new techniques and technologies in the field of civil engineering. The teams on both sides overcame barriers of different languages, metrics, financial institutions, engineering companies and different ways of working and doing things.

However, there were significant delays (it took 6 years to build it instead of 5 years) and cost overruns exceeding 80% of the initial budget. The cost overrun was understandable because of the absence of any precedent and associated experience to have an accurate estimate.

The delay was due to scope creep or change in specifications during the construction process. For example, during the design and planning phase no air conditioning system was included. Normally train tunnels don’t need an air-conditioning system as air circulates freely from one end to the other. But the Eurotunnel was no simple tunnel. The depth, length and narrow width of the tunnel and heat that high speed trains generate as they pass trough would be very high thus causing problems such as high temperatures and equipment mal-functions. To solve the overheating problem, a special air-conditioning system had to be employed to keep the temperature in the tunnel between 38°C to 50°C. So, when managing projects every detail, aspects, challenges and issues should be considered during the planning and design phase to avoid any delays.

Despite the delays and cost overruns, the Eurotunnel is one of the greatest infrastructure projects of modern times. In 1996 the American Society of Civil Engineers selected it as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.