Kent and the Chunnel

Kent and the Chunnel

For over 100 years, the idea of connecting England and France by a train line was something that most people just dreamed about.  Some attempted the tremendous feat, but it was a little company in Kent, WA who proved to everyone that the impossible would become a reality.  This is the story of The Robbins Company, its machines, and the people who made it happen.

The Robbins Company got its start when James Robbins opened his office, Robbins and Associates, located at the Smith Tower in Seattle, WA in 1952.  They shared an office space with Jack Benaroya to keep their costs manageable.  The first Tunnel

James Robbins with a boring machine
James Robbins next to a granite wall that shows the swirling cutter track patterns.

Boring Machine (TBM) they built was for Mitry Constructors in support of the Oahe Dam diversion project in Pierre, South Dakota.  Robbins would later patent a new disc cutter method for TBMs in 1956, and the TBM was now a success at cutting hard rock ground tunnels.

1958 brought a change to the Robbins Company, when its founder died in a small aircraft accident.  Robert “Dick” Robbins, assumed the office of President for the Company, and proceeded to carry on his father’s projects.  One of these was in Tanzania

Richard Robbins
Richard Robbins

which Robbins was ultimately not selected for the contract award.  Dick Robbins recalls that period of time when he was down to two people in the company.  There was himself working on project bids, and the Office Assistant who worked for his father.

Robbins Company continued on with a series of projects and contracts until an opportunity came up for Dick Robbins to travel to France in 1974.  While over there, Robbins had a contract for a drill that was going to start tunneling under the English Channel.  However, the project ran out of funds as the drill was set on the ground in France.  From this experience Dick Robbins met the people and built the relationships necessary for the future success of the Channel Tunnel project.

In 1979, The Robbins Company moved from its Seattle offices out to a newly constructed building on SE 212th & 76th Ave in Kent, WA.  This large industrial complex allowed Robbins to combine its engineering and manufacturing facilities into one location.  The company would not stay here long and they eventually sold the property to The Boeing Company’s Propulsion Systems Division of Commercial Aircraft.  The building is currently in use by Blue Origin, a commercial space venture backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Some of the personnel at the local Kent Offices who supported The Chunnel Project were:

  1. Richard “Dick” Robbins (President) – Son of the founder James Robbins, served as President from 1958 – 1993 when The Robbins Company was sold to a Swedish Corporation.Richard Robbins Current
  2. Bob Fielder (Maintenance Technician) – He joined Robbins in 1979 after serving 8 years in the US Army. Bob was in school at a local Spokane Community College, when Dick Robbins arrived to interview the students in the Fluid Dynamics program.  Bob was one of 15 that were hired to come work for Robbins.Bob Fielder
  3. Matt Gregor (Project Engineer & Site Engineer) – Matt was a recent University of Washington Mechanical Engineering graduate in Finite Elements Analysis and surface and stress analysis. One the Chunnel Project, Matt had two assignments the first one was a three-month job in Portland, Oregon at Bingham-Willamette.  Then he was the project engineer who observed the construction of the First TBM (T1) that would ship over to France for the project.  Later, he was sent on station over to Calais, France to be the site engineer overseeing the daily work and engineering support for the French side of the operation.Matt Gregor
  4. Robert “Bob” Moffat (Project Engineer) – Bob was already an established employee at Robbins when the Channel Tunnel Project was awarded to Robbins. He spent one and half years over in England supporting the Robbins-Markham team out of Chesterfield, England.  While there, Robbins-Markham built two TBMs to support the British team out of Dover.Robert Moffat
  5. Joe Roby (Specialist and Consultant) – Joe joined the Robbins Company to support the Channel Project and was on location in both Dover and Calais as required to support overall program implementation of the Project.Joe Roby
  6. Gary Richards (Senior Engineer) – Gary was sent to Calais to Lead the French Team on the project after the in country personnel had some complications arising from another project. He was described by his colleagues as, “firm and tenacious, but also good people person to work with.”  Gary was responsible for getting performance improvements and efficiencies out of the operating team that allowed for the project to recover from initial delays and ultimately met the schedule for completion.

The Engineer’s Technology

In the mid-1980’s the Engineering profession was beginning to go through some changes with computing systems becoming more affordable.  In 1985-86 The Robbins Company was still using classical drafting boards for their engineers to produce drawings.  Robbins got their first CAD Computer in 1986, and the engineers would all pass their paper drawings to one technician to manually recreate in the new computer system.  A few years later, Robbins started to use the ANSYS Finite Elements software package, which allowed engineers to adjust their drawings electronically and save them for the CAD technician.  Today, modern full function CAD platforms allow one engineer to perform the Finite Elements Analysis, and produce all necessary drawings and even perform simulation and operations modeling in 3D.

English Channel Project – 150 years in the Making

The first definite effort to cross the English Channel was proposed by French engineer M. Mathieu to Napoleon I in 1802.  The purpose of the tunnel was to be a post between the two countries.

The French design
The French design

There would be a total of four proposals for tunneling operations by French engineers between 1802 and 1866.  Additionally, a bridge construction proposal was considered as well in 1836.  All of these designs schemes had a common element, using the shoreline area of Cap Gris-Nez (Cape Grey Nose) as the point to start out from and work towards Folkstone or Dover in England.  This route, while not the shortest distance between England and France, was the shallowest depth at 30m (180 feet), and would support any type of civil engineering technology available at the time of construction.

Not to be outdone, the English were exploring their own options for how to build a connection to the two coastal areas.  Various engineers came up with six tunnel ideas and one bridge concept between 1866-1889.  The English efforts to build a tunnel or bridge were curtailed in parliament by the military who opposed any efforts to allow for a by-pass or undermine of English defenses deployed by the Royal Navy.

The English Design
The English Design

The Robbins Company efforts to support the English Channel

Around the late 1950’s James Robbins visited England and was afforded an opportunity to investigate the 500’ tunneling attempt that was produced in 1875.  From these experiences he was able to meet and build relationships with the interested parties in England who would back a tunneling effort.  James died in 1958, and his son, Dick picked up the ideas and continued to move forward.

In 1974, Robbins had built one TBM, and it was sent to Calais, France for beginning a path towards Dover.  The machine was never placed in ground before the project funding was exhausted.

Revitalized interest in the English Channel Tunnel grew with the English and French Governments signing an accord on February 12, 1986.  The accord recognized two consortiums which created the TransManche Link (TML) beginning on October 18, 1985.  TML was tasked with the construction and building of the English Channel Tunnel for Eurotunnel Ltd.  The project was for 9.5 Billion Pounds and represented the largest Civil Engineering endeavor undertaken at its time.  The tunnel design is 31 miles long and connects the two cities of Cheriton in Kent, England with Sangatte, France.Chunnel Map

Robbins Company partnered with Bingham-Willamette in Portland, Oregon to build the first TBM for the project, known as T1.  This new design of the TBM included two piston discharge units built by Komastu that would handle the water pressure generated by drilling in the closed mode.  The completed TBM was shipped by a cargo freighter arriving in France one month prior to the beginning of drilling operations June 1988.

The first TBM ready to ship from Oregon.
The first TBM ready to ship from Oregon.
T1 Ready to Bore
The first boring machine being lined up to start the work in France.

The first tunnel section breakthrough was the service tunnel access on December 1, 1990.  Englishman Graham Fagg and Frenchman Phillippe Cozette carried out the ceremonial break through a 3’ by 4’ hole and was celebrated by the construction team with little fanfare.  Approximately six months later the train tunnels would start to break through with the Northbound Tunnel connecting on May 22, 1991.  Shortly after that the Southbound Tunnel broke through and connected on June 28 of that same year.

First Break
First Break

Rail service begins between London and Paris

It would be another three years before rail service would be ready to commence on May 6th, 1994 England and France celebrated the opening of the Eurostar rail service with a ceremonial ribbon cutting in the Tunnel.  In a ceremony that was emblematic of their respective countries, England was represented by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who arrived from Waterloo Station on a classic steam engine drawn train at a sauntering 80 kph.  Meanwhile, French Prime Minister, Francois Mitterrand was propelled from Paris at 186 mph on a newly commissioned Grey & Silver TGV Bullet train.

Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting
Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting

Thanks to the following companies and periodicals for the research information.
1.The Robbins Company
2.Scientific American Archives
3.London Telegraph
6.The Boeing Company Archives

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