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Channel Tunnel and Dartford Crossing among Kent's finest engineering

Engineering projects tend not to make many people creep to the edge of their seat in excited anticipation.

Yet it's worth remembering that it is ambitious schemes - often with eye-watering costs - which not only define our landscapes but have brought considerable benefit to our lives - most notably when it comes to transport.

We take a look at just a handful of the most influential.

Dartford Crossing

Queen Elizabeth Bridge opened October 1991
Queen Elizabeth Bridge opened October 1991

It's hard to imagine the county without the Dartford Crossing - if for no other reason than every trip towards it comes with a sense of dread at the queues we are likely to encounter.

But the crossing has transformed the road network for those of us living east of the capital.

And, Brexiteers prepare to be cross, we have European cash to thank, in part, for its construction.

Initially proposed in 1924, work had originally started on the first tunnel in 1936, but the advent of the Second World War applied the brakes.

It was not until 1959 that work started again with many of the workers involved suffering from decompression sickness - 'the bends' - as they dug under the river. The following year, tolls were agreed, and the west tunnel was opened in 1963.

Dartford Tunnel: The tunnel pictured under construction during the early stages of building in 1959.
Dartford Tunnel: The tunnel pictured under construction during the early stages of building in 1959.

By 1970 the two million vehicles a year it expected to use the tunnel had quadrupled and by 1971 work began on the east tunnel. But when it ran out of money, it was thanks to the European Economic Community (now better known as the EU) which came to the rescue and provided the cash to allow its completion. It was opened in 1980 - and eventually linked to both sides of the M25 by 1986.

With the extra traffic that brought, work on the nearly 3km long Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (it was to be called the Dartford Bridge but that raised objections with our Essex neighbours in Thurrock) began.

Officially opened by the Queen in 1991, even that failed to meet demand.

All of which means we await work on the Lower Thames Crossing east of Gravesend...

Channel Tunnel

Inside the Channel Tunnel during construction (13654813)
Inside the Channel Tunnel during construction (13654813)

It was 25 years ago that the link between Kent and mainland Europe was finally completed.

Work commenced on what we now know as the tunnel in 1988 and would take six years to become a reality.

Unsurprisingly, the project was enormous both in terms of manpower and, perhaps inevitably, cost overruns. In total, it would cost the equivalent of £12bn.

Some 15,000 people were working on the construction of the tunnel at its peak, costing an estimated £3m a day. Ten would pay the ultimate price - eight on the British side - and lost their life during the process, primarily during the early drilling stage.

Such was the scale of the project, Samphire Hoe, near Dover, was constructed by the material dug by the huge boring machines.

It opened with much pomp and ceremony in 1994.


Future generations may think the Channel Tunnel's completion coincided with High Speed One - the fast rail link connecting London to the Continent, whizzing via Ebbsfleet and Ashford as it did so.

But while the French already had their link from the tunnel entrance to Paris in place, we had to wait a little longer for the full high-speed route to finally open.

Thirteen years, in fact, when finally Parisians could get to London's St Pancras in a little over two hours.

Built in sections, after it faced a financial crisis in 1998, the first went from the tunnel to Fawkham Junction, near Dartford, and opened in 2003, before the second section, flying up to St Pancras went live in 2007.

Before then, those heading into London on the Eurostar found themselves disembarking at Waterloo.

However, it was another two years before domestic travellers got to use the line - meaning Ashford to London was reduced to a mere 38 minutes.

HS1 certainly wasn't cheap, though. The entire project cost close to £7bn - which equates to £51m per mile. No wonder ticket prices are a tad steep.

Medway Viaducts

The New Medway Bridge under construction in November 1962
The New Medway Bridge under construction in November 1962

While users tend to focus on the nice view of Rochester and the meandering River Medway, it's easy to be blinded by the enormity of the achievement of the three separate bridges which span the waterway - collectively known as the Medway Viaducts.

The original bridge (now the coastbound section) was opened in 1963 as a key part of the M2.

It wasn't until 2003 that reinforcements arrived in the form of another bridge for HS1 and, opening the following year, a second road bridge - London-bound.

The structure dominates the area and it so impressed industry experts it won a prestigious Concrete Society award for civil engineering.

Medway Tunnel

Medway Tunnel under construction
Medway Tunnel under construction

When the Chatham dockyard closed for the last time in 1984 and the land, renamed Chatham Maritime, opened up for development, Kent County Council - in the days before Medway Council - started to examine ways of installing another Medway crossing.

It wasn't until 1990 permission was given to the Rochester Bridge Trust - the historic charity which has, for centuries, maintained the bridges at Rochester - to build a tunnel connecting Chatham and Strood.

Work began in 1992 and it was finally opened, with a construction cost of around £80m, in 1996 by Princess Anne.

It may not be the prettiest thing to look at (the tunnel, not Princess Anne, you understand) but it opened up the towns to support the development which was blooming around it.

In 2009 ownership of the site was transferred to Medway Council.

It was pioneering in being the first in England to use an 'immersed tube' for the main stretch under the river - and only the second in the UK.

Sheppey Crossing

Aerial photographs showing progress of the Second Swale Crossing works taken in March 2005.
Aerial photographs showing progress of the Second Swale Crossing works taken in March 2005.

Ignoring the unkind jokes as to the purpose of the original Kingsferry Crossing, linking the mainland to Sheppey, it was both too narrow - only one lane in each direction - and, crucially, had to halt traffic so it could be lifted to allow boats to pass underneath it. Not ideal when running a little late for work.

Thus when £100m was ear-marked to improve the A249 linking Sheppey to the M2 and M20 motorways, the new bridge was born.

The contract to build the bridge was awarded in 2004 and two years later it was opened to traffic.

It has not been without considerable controversy over the years concerning sight lines, and was, infamously, the scene of one of the UK's biggest ever pile-ups in 2013 when more than 130 cars pranged in thick fog. Remarkably, no one was killed.

Thanet Way

Construction of the new Thanet Way
Construction of the new Thanet Way

It's little wonder the likes of Sheppey and Thanet still maintain an island mentality given it is only relatively recently their roads were upgraded to modern standards.

The Thanet Way wasn't even constructed until the 1930s - prior to that, all traffic had to travel via Canterbury.

It wasn't until 1997 that the road was made dual carriageway along its entire length, when the previous road was by-passed as it reached the coastal towns of Whitstable and Herne Bay (the original stretch being known now as the Old Thanet Way.)

The A299, to give it its formal title, then linked onto a new dual carriageway, easing traffic through Cliffsend, in order to better service Manston Airport and the Discovery Park site in Sandwich. That opened in 2012. Probably best not to dwell on Manston promptly shutting in 2014 and remaining unused ever since.

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