FLEET Street's cartoonists are beginning to find the Thatcher government's policy toward the Channel Tunnel irresistible. The London Evening Standard's resident mirthmaker last week depicted a sleek French high-speed train disgorging bemused Gallic travelers into a piece of British rolling stock that looked like a San Francisco cable car that had lost its way.
Sparking the satire was a government decision that has dismayed potential British users of the ``Chunnel,'' due to link Britain and France in 1993, and stunned transportation planners in the countries of continental Europe.
On the same day that France announced plans to spend 20 billion ($34.2 billion) on 2,000 miles of high-speed rail track, the British government balked at spending 3 billion on a 70-mile high-speed track linking London with Folkestone on the southeast coast of England.
One result of the decision is that when the undersea tunnel opens, rail passengers turning up on the English side of the Channel will transfer to trains less than one-quarter as fast as their French counterparts. Another, according to John Prescott, the opposition Labour Party's transportation spokesman, is that Britain ``will become the branch line of Europe.''
The decision not to approve public funding for the London- Folkstone high-speed rail link is in line with the Thatcher government's deep commitment to private-sector financing of public utilities. The French, by contrast, are happy to plow taxpayers' money into vast engineering projects, including trains designed to rip along at 200 miles an hour.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's opposition to providing the money needed to fund the Chunnel rail-link appears to fit into a larger pattern of current British policy.
The prime minister is deeply resistant to Britain joining the European Monetary System, despite pressure to do so from her ministers, including John Major, the chancellor of the exchequer.
She opposes closer political integration of the European Community (EC), dislikes the idea of a European Central Bank, and argues that the dismantling of the EC's internal frontiers threatened to encourage international terrorism. Cecil Parkinson, Mrs. Thatcher's transportation secretary, told the House of Commons last week, ``We don't believe we should subsidize international rail services.''
In Paris, Michel Delabarre, the French transportation minister, declined to make a direct criticism of the British policy, but said: ``A high-speed network is an ambition for France. But it is also a considerable project for opening up toward Europe.''
The high-speed rail network that Britain will not be joining is indeed ambitious. Along with the French, transportation ministers in Italy, Germany, and Spain are working on a 20-year investment plan for a Europewide rail grid.
The ultimate aim is to build more than 40,000 miles of high-speed track linking Denmark in the north to Spain in the south, and running all the way from Greece in the east to Britain, via the Chunnel, in the west. Such a network would offer sharp competition to air and car travel.
The British decision appears to indicate that the western end of the proposed network will consist of trains running at around 50 miles an hour on standard track through southeast England's already crowded terrain.
Robert Adley, a leading Conservative member of Parliament, regards the Thatcher policy as ``mistaken.'' The views of other critics within Conservative ranks are offered privately, but range all the way from ``profoundly humiliating to Britain in a European context'' to ``irresponsible.''
At the Brussels headquarters of the EC, official spokesmen were reluctant to spell out for public consumption their disappointment at the British government's thumbs down to a high-speed link. One senior official, however, said the decision threatened to put Britain out of step with its economic partners.