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Silver Bullet: As Train Traffic Soars, This Technology Offers A Light At The End Of The Channel Tunnel

The Brits and the French have spent centuries locked in a complex relationship stretching from the Norman conquest to Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” — yet the two countries still can’t get enough of one another.

In 2017, for example, more than 20 million people and millions of cars and trucks crossed between France and England through the 31-mile-long tunnel under the English Channel. But the Channel Tunnel is now at capacity and Getlink, the company that operates it, has no plans to dig another tunnel. Stretching 130 feet under the seabed, the original three tubes — for passenger and freight trains as well as vehicle shuttles — opened in 1994 and took six years and $17 billion in today’s money to complete.

Instead, Getlink wants to send more trains down the tracks by adding more power. With as many as eight trains running through the tunnel during peak times already, the company has asked GE to build the world’s largest “load balancer” to stabilize voltage and boost the train traffic in the tunnel. “We need a system to support the voltage, that will keep the increasing number of trains running,” says Louis Nivelleau, a director at GE Power’s Grid Solutions business based in Tampere, Finland.

“We need a system to support the voltage, that will keep the increasing number of trains running,” says Louis Nivelleau, a director at GE Power’s Grid Solutions business based in Tampere, Finland. Top image credit: Getlink. 

The system, called Static Synchronous Compensator, or STATCOM, is scheduled to come online in 2029. By reducing voltage variations, it will help Getlink send almost twice as much traffic through the Channel Tunnel in the future.

It also will allow the tunnel operator to continue to benefit from the purchases of electricity “where it is least expensive,” says Michel Boudoussier, chief corporate officer at Getlink. About 98 percent of the electricity used to power the Channel Tunnel comes from France, “because it’s cheaper and has a lower carbon footprint,” Nivelleau says.

A steady of flow of greater traffic through the Channel Tunnel should ultimately boost the U.K. and European economies too, given that a full quarter of British trade with EU countries — everything from postal and courier freight to food, cars, computers and electronics — passes through it.

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