Cheriton Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre

Boring of the Channel Tunnel formally began on 15th December 1987, setting in motion a construction project that would take six years to complete. "Eurotunnel" was the company that had been granted the right to develop, finance, and operate the Channel Tunnel. Eurotunnel itself was formed of two companies: British-based "Eurotunnel PLC" and French-based "Eurotunnel SA", both of which signed concession agreements with Governments on either side of the Channel on 14th March 1986 (ref: Cross-Channel Car Ferries report, Monopolies and Mergers Commission, H.M. Stationery Office, 1989). Eurotunnel had started life as the "Channel Tunnel Group" (CTG), a consortium of five British construction firms — Balfour Beatty, Costain, Tarmac, Taylor Woodrow, and Wimpey — formed in March 1984 to promote a fixed link between Britain and France (ref: Aberdeen Evening Express, 5th March 1984). By May of the following year, National Westminster Bank had joined the CTG and, on 2nd July 1985, the group formally announced that they were teaming up with a French consortium of building contractors and banks (ref: Birmingham Evening Mail, 2nd July 1985). On Monday, 20th January 1986, it was announced that the CTG’s proposal for a twin-bore rail-only tunnel had been selected by British and French Governments as the preferred construction project, having contended against rival schemes by consortia Channel Expressway, Eurobridge, and EuroRoute.

During the construction phase, exhibition centres were established by Eurotunnel at both Cheriton (Folkestone) and Coquelles (Calais), to educate the public on the huge undertaking of establishing a railway link between Britain and the continent. The exhibition centre at Cheriton occupied a site known as "St Martin’s Plain", immediately adjacent to and on the southern side of the M20. On the opposite side of the latter was situated the gargantuan construction site of the Eurotunnel Shuttle terminal. The attraction was formally opened on 19th September 1988 by the then Secretary for Trade and Industry, Lord Young of Graffham, cost £2 million to build, and saw over 100,000 visitors in its first six months (ref: Channel Tunnel Handbook via Folkestone Herald, 7th April 1989).

The exhibition centre was described in the local press as comprising a prefabricated structure, out of which protruded the front end of a shuttle locomotive mock-up (ref: Channel Tunnel Handbook via Folkestone Herald, 7th April 1989). Inside could be found a 32-metre-long N Gauge (1:148 scale) model railway depicting the terminals at both Cheriton and Coquelles, with a token stretch of the tunnel in-between, which was complemented by a model of the construction site at Shakespeare Cliff. The model of the terminals was first displayed at the 1988 International Transport Exhibition in Hamburg, during which time it drew large crowds, and train movements upon it were controlled by a computer. A full-size model of a tunnel boring machine’s cutting head was also stated as being on site, although the October 1989 edition of The Railway Magazine suggested that this was 7/8ths of actual size. Bilingual history displays described previous Channel Tunnel construction attempts, computer games were present to entertain younger viewers, and a library housing Chunnel-related documents was on site. An audio-visual experience described Eurotunnel’s history, and a full-size section of a two-deck tourist shuttle wagon — with Rover and Renault cars — was in evidence. Visitors were able to pick up refreshments at an on-site cafeteria, and Chunnel-related memorabilia could be purchased at a gift shop. Finally, on the centre’s first floor was an area dedicated to the "Tunnel Express Club" for under-13s,

April 1991

A westward view shows the gigantic 800-tonne tunnel boring machine (TBM) that had arrived by January 1991, after making an 8.2-KM drive from Shakespeare Cliff to Holywell. The colossus attracted criticism from some locals, being called an "eyesore", but had been smartened up by October of the following year by a fresh coat of white paint. Behind the TBM can be seen the exhibition centre: the main entrance was through the shuttle locomotive mock-up on the right. © David Glasspool Collection

The exhibition centre attracted an entrance fee of £1.50 for adults and £0.75 for children (£4.28 and £2.14 respectively at 2021 prices). Adjacent to the centre’s main building was a 21-metre-high (70-foot) observation tower, which provided a bird’s eye view beyond the M20, over the huge Cheriton Terminal construction site. Unlike the rest of the exhibition site, the observation tower did not attract an entry fee (ref: Channel Tunnel Handbook via Folkestone Herald, 7th April 1989).

In the 29th December 1989 edition of the Folkestone Herald newspaper, it was reported that Eurotunnel needed to replace the 600-metres of track that made up the model railway at Cheriton Exhibition Centre. The layout had been operating eight hours a day, six days a week since the centre opened, during which time the models had travelled the equivalent of nearly half way round the world. Scale models of Eurotunnel’s railway stock were available in the centre’s gift shop.

By January 1991, one of the gigantic tunnel boring machines (TBM) — weighing 800-tonnes and comprising an 8.7-metre diameter — had been put on show at the exhibition centre. It had completed an 8.2-KM drive from Shakespeare Cliff to Holywell, near the terminal site at Cheriton, in September 1990, which had taken thirteen months (ref: Hull Daily Mail, 13th September 1990). The TBM took two hours to move from Holywell to the exhibition centre and required a section of the M20 to be closed. The press reported complaints from local residents, claiming that the rusting hulk was an eyesore — indeed, Eurotunnel conceded that the TBM needed "a lick of paint to spruce it up", given that it had been underground for more than a year (ref: Folkestone Herald, 1st February 1991).

April 1991

An observation tower provided a fine panorama across the Cheriton Shuttle Terminal construction site, and did not attract an entrance fee. In the far centre-background of this view can just be seen the portals of the Chunnel. Just behind the A20 are the first signs of track being laid. In the foreground is the M20, which had been extended from Ashford to Folkestone in connection with the Chunnel works. © David Glasspool Collection

In the April 1992 edition of The Railway Magazine, it was reported that a series of engineering department narrow gauge locomotives and wagons had arrived at Cheriton Exhibition Centre to form a new display. In August of that year, the same publication remarked that Eurotunnel had successfully tested its first 24-vehicle Shuttle train at Folkestone; however, this run was actually carried out on the N-gauge layout at the exhibition centre using a model, rather than at the adjacent terminal employing the real thing. The trial on the model identified that, due to short platforms, regular Shuttle operation would be limited to 20-vehicle length.

In May 1993, a pair of early BR MK 2 Tourist Second Open (TSO) carriages, Nos. W5438 and M5541, arrived by road at Cheriton Exhibition Centre. Withdrawn by British Rail (BR) on 5th July 1991 (ref: The Railway Magazine, October 1991), at least No. W5438 had initially been dispatched by BR to Booth Roe Metals’ scrapyard, Rotherham, on 8th April 1992 (ref: The Railway Magazine, August 1992), and was purchased from that merchant by Eurotunnel for educational purposes and to provide accommodation for visiting school parties having lunch (ref: The Railway Magazine, August 1993). Wearing BR Blue and Grey, it was remarked in the press that both carriages required internal refitting and external repainting before use; however, they were still wearing their original colours two years later.

On 6th May 1994, the Channel Tunnel was opened with ceremony by Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterrand of France. The exhibition centre remained open beyond this date; it was not until the turn of April 1996 that closure of the site was announced, scheduled to take effect at the end of that month (ref: Folkestone Herald, 4th April 1996). It was reported that the move was opposed by the local council, because the centre was a major tourist attraction; however, given that the Channel Tunnel was now complete and open, Eurotunnel remarked that the centres at Cheriton and Coquelles had served their purpose.

After the closure of the exhibition centre at Cheriton, it was announced that Eurotunnel wanted to convert the site into offices and a rest stop for coaches (ref: Folkestone Herald, 3rd October 1996). It was estimated that up to one hundred coaches would use the site daily, although the plans faced opposition on the grounds of introducing more traffic to an already congested road network.

In September 1998, one of the BR Mk 2 carriages that had arrived at the exhibition site in May 1993 — No. M5541 — was moved by low-loader to Cheriton Shuttle Terminal (ref: Folkestone Herald, 1st October 1998). Eurotunnel stated that the carriage was going to be used for staff training, having served as a canteen called the "Sandwich Express" for school parties visiting the exhibition. A hydraulic system pulled the carriage onto the trailer of the low-loader, using rails. It was remarked in the local press that two other carriages had existed at the site, one of which had by that time been sold and the other was still looking for a new owner. Your author is aware of the aforementioned pair of BR Mk 2 vehicles that arrived in 1993, but has no details on the mysterious third carriage mentioned.

October 1992

A nice line-up of vehicles of the period are seen in the car park in this northward view, which includes the main exhibition building and, emerging above the roof line, the observation tower. Both structures remain standing today, although the Eurotunnel logo upon the tower was taken down long ago. Your author understands that the complex is now a church, after a long period of being a lorry stop. © David Glasspool Collection

2nd July 1994

Twelve narrow-gauge locomotives were built by the Hunslet Engine Company Limited, Yorkshire, in 1989, to help transport rail workers, their equipment, and spoil from the Chunnel boring operation. After retirement, one of these was put on display at Eurotunnel's Exhibition Centre in Folkestone; an example — complete with muck truck — now resides at the National Railway Museum in York. © David Glasspool Collection

6th May 1995

Pictured are the pair of ex-British Rail Mk2 TSO carriages that arrived at Cheriton in May 1993, having been purchased by Eurotunnel for the purposes of forming a canteen for school children (the "Sandwich Express") and housing educational material. Nearest the camera is No. M5541, which formerly plied the Midland Main Line between St Pancras and Derby; beyond is No. W5438. No. M5541 was eventually transferred to the adjacent shuttle terminal for staff training purposes — does it still exist there? © David Glasspool Collection