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.