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Pouvez-vous hear me? Bien sure!

BOR-RING! No, not in the sense of ennui. In the sense of an 800-ton drill clawing and chawing its way through chalk marl beneath the English Channel. From both sides of the channel, a consortium of 10 British and French construction companies is engaged in the largest engineering project of the century: a 32-mile tunnel (actually three tunnels - two rail bores for carrying passengers and freight, and one for maintenance) connecting Britain and France. The Channel Tunnel (or ``Chunnel''), begun in 1987, won't be ready for service until 1993. A breakthrough occurred last week, though, when a two-inch-wide probe penetrated the remaining 100 yards of stone blocking the maintenance tube. That tube should be cleared before the month is out.

The tunnel has been at once an engineering marvel and a financial nightmare. The latest estimate lifted the projected cost, originally $9 billion, to $14 billion. The 210 banks and half-million shareholders financing the project (which receives no government funding) are getting edgy. Meanwhile, an American engineer was recently brought in to resolve disputes between the project's owner, Eurotunnel, and the construction consortium.

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But somehow the money and managerial problems will be resolved, and the drilling goes on.

The French, who have always loved grands projets (the Suez Canal), are enthusiastic. They readily perceive the trade and employment benefits that will flow when high-speed trains can whisk beneath the channel. Grand plans exist for the tunnel's French terminus, near Calais.

The English are more ambivalent. For them, the channel has never been a barrier so much as a protecting moat. The British terminal, near Dover, will be little more state-of-the-art than Waterloo Station. Critics have groused about a range of anticipated horrors. Beneath it all, however, lurks that special English dread of foreignness.

Britain's insularity, its ``splendid isolation,'' has been, in a way, part of its charm. But Britain is ineluctably being drawn into Europe. As with many other steps toward European unity, Britain will, in the long run, benefit mightily from the Chunnel. As usual, though, it will be the last to know.

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