Behind the scenes at Eurotunnel LeShuttle

  • Inspiring places
  • France
  • 8 min read
Behind the scenes at Eurotunnel LeShuttle

Find out what goes on behind the scenes at LeShuttle (formerly Eurotunnel) with Dennis Watts, one of our shuttle drivers.

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at LeShuttle? You might have questions like: “who drives the passenger shuttles?”, “How do cars get onto them?”, or “How do they control trains across two separate countries?”

Well, rest easy. We’re about to share some insider information so that next time you’re enjoying a relaxing journey from Folkestone to Calais with us, you’ll know all about how we make it happen. You’re also about to meet a very special member of our team.

Introducing Dennis Watts

Meet Dennis Watts, a shuttle driver for LeShuttle's UK traincrew department. He’s been at LeShuttle since 2012, starting out as a crew member on board the shuttles, before qualifying as a Driver/Chef de Train (Train Captain) in 2013. Dennis drives both LeShuttle's passenger and truck shuttles and is also a Chef de Train (Train Captain) and crew member when required.

“It's a very responsible role and requires us to not only drive the shuttles but also to manage the crew and liaise with the control centres and rolling stock technicians on both sides of the Channel. We’re responsible for dealing with technical faults and emergencies on board. If a shuttle were to break down in the tunnel, we are the first responder to try and repair the fault and get the shuttle moving again. Should the evacuation of a shuttle be required, we're there to make sure that the evacuation is carried out quickly and safely.”

Dennis has been a keen amateur photographer since school (before digital cameras were realistically available). When LeShuttle opened, he was on work experience at his local newspaper, The Folkestone Herald, and remembers the opening of the Channel Tunnel as an important event for the area.

“I studied photography at A-Level and now I'm a Licentiate member of the Royal Photographic Society. A few years ago, I was asked if I could take some photographs for LeShuttle, and I was happy to take advantage of the privileged access to our operations that my main role affords me. When I'm a reserve driver and not needed for driving duties I'll often use my time on site to take photographs which you will often see on social media as well as the company website.”

Dennis’ photography skills are certainly impressive, and they’ll help to show you more about LeShuttle.

The tunnels

One of the largest engineering projects undertaken in the UK, The Channel Tunnel was first designed in 1802, but for horse-drawn carts! It wasn’t until 1987 that work truly began and it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand on 6th May 1994.

Inside of a large tunnel that’s lit and curves to the right

As you can see from Dennis’ picture above, the tunnel isn't straight, it weaves about a little in order to follow the geology. Prior to 1990 (when the tunnel first broke through), there hadn't been a land border between the UK and France since the ice age. The layers of Chalk Marl, which is ideal for tunnelling, were bored through with relative ease to create the tunnels.

Dennis explains: “The tunnel in the picture is a service tunnel used for maintenance access. It provides a ventilation conduit for the rail tunnels and it's also our lifeboat should we need to evacuate a shuttle.”

Large metal door on yellow and black striped flooring stained from use and metal fuse boxes and controls on the wall

“This is one of the cross-passage doors, which controls access to the rail tunnels from the service tunnel. There are 270 of them and they are placed every 375 m apart. Their main purpose is to allow access to the 'lifeboat' service tunnel in an emergency. The service tunnel is maintained at a higher air pressure than the rail tunnels, meaning that any smoke in the rail tunnel will be pushed away from the door creating a bubble effect to allow an evacuation. This particular door is near the Midpoint of the tunnel, 28 km from the UK portal and opens onto the south rail tunnel.”

Rolling stock

Rolling stock are the locomotives, carriages, and other vehicles used on a railway line. At LeShuttle, the passenger and truck shuttles are unique in the world and our locomotives are the most powerful in Europe. Dennis can tell us more about the different locomotives LeShuttle operates.

“As a passenger with us, you’ll travel in one of our nine LeShuttle Passenger Shuttles which has a locomotive at each end. One has a single deck for coaches, minibuses, caravans, and vehicles higher than 1.85m. The other transports cars and motorcycles on a double deck. A complete passenger shuttle is made up of 24 carriages and four loading and unloading wagons and can carry 12 coaches and 120 cars.”

Sunset on a long stretch of shuttle track made from metal with lights strung along each side

“This is one of our truck shuttles, you can just make out the rear loco, half a mile away in the distance. Each shuttle can carry 32 full size articulated lorries.”

Front of a blue and white Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train with 9711 on the front with blue skies and green trees above

“This is a LeShuttle Class 9000 shuttle loco on the UK arrival line. These were assembled by Brush Traction in Loughborough. They're the world's most powerful locomotives of their type. Each shuttle has a pair of locomotives working in tandem, one pushing, one pulling. Should one of them have a problem, the other is capable of hauling the shuttle out of the tunnel.”

Front of a blue and white Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train with 9808 on its nose pulled in at a station terminal with blue lighting all around

I took a 30 second exposure of one of our shuttles unloading. The front has a standard UIC coupling which allows it to haul works trains, freight trains, or even another shuttle if required.”

The outside of a row of train carriages all grey metal with small windows and doors dotted along pulled in at station

“Our tourist wagons (passenger shuttles) are built with a stainless-steel body shell. This resists the harsh environment they operate in. We not only have salty air from being so near to the coast but also brake dust from the shuttles themselves. They're the largest trains in Europe, as well as being 800 metres long, they also have a very large cross section to allow them to accept cars and allow people to move around them.”

Inside our shuttles

Dennis has been driving LeShuttle shuttles for nearly a decade, so he can show you a ‘driver’s view’ from inside the cab.

A view of the Eurotunnel track ahead of a driver from inside the cabin with controls lit up and a blue night sky with rain on the window

“This is the view a driver sees when waiting to depart. Our shuttles run 24 hours a day, on each day of the year.”

Close up of a driver’s hand in a train with a green pen and paper in front of them with the screen and controls that display the train’s speed and signal controls

“Our rail network uses a signalling system called TVM430, it's a French in-cab signalling system originally designed for the TGV. It displays the speed limit (in this case 40 km/h) or stopping signals on the locomotive's dashboard rather than the traditional trackside signals. In the tunnel our shuttles run at up to 140 km/h, impressive for something half a mile long that weighs over 3000 tonnes!”

View inside a train’s driver cabin with two seats screens controls and buttons for driving the train

“In this shuttle cab, the driver's desk is on the left, and the Chef de Train (Train Captain) position is on the right. If we needed to change direction in the tunnel, the driver stops and moves across to the Chef de Train desk. The Chef de Train, at the other end of the shuttle, will move across to the driving desk, which saves time and allows us to get the train out of the tunnel more quickly.”

Loading and unloading

Loading and unloading our shuttles is part of our day-to-day, but if you haven’t travelled with us before it can be a little daunting to imagine driving your car onto a shuttleCars are usually loaded onto the double deck portion of the shuttle, so you may drive up a ramp inside the shuttle to access this, or you’ll be directed to the lower deck. Higher vehicles, such as motorhomes and coaches drive straight into the single deck portion of the shuttle.

Cars driving onto a train carriage silver sports car already inside and a blue car following

“Here’s what it looks like when vehicles drive onto the lower deck of the rear ‘rake’. Rake is a railway term used to describe a section of train containing wagons of a similar design and purpose. Each rake is a quarter of a mile long.”

View from a driver’s window of four cars driving down a concrete ramp towards the shuttle

“If you've travelled with us before you may have seen the rear locomotive as you drive down to the shuttle. This is a view from inside the cab.”

Long queue of Mini cars driven onto a train carriage ready to depart on a journey red mini with two passengers inside at the front

“Back in 2019 we welcomed ‘The Italian Job’ charity Mini run onto our shuttles. We can fit seven classic Minis into a compartment, with most modern cars we can usually only fit four or five.”

The LeShuttle control centre

Because there is a lot going on day-to-day in our terminals and out on the tracks, it makes sense to have a centralised control centre.

The Rail Control Centre (RCC) manages all the trains and shuttles in the tunnels whereas Traffic Control Centre (TCC), controls the traffic onsite (freight/lorry traffic and passenger traffic, staff vehicles, etc) and coordinates the emergency response (ERO’s etc) for all above ground incidents on the terminal.

Man in blue shirt operating a computer with 5 screens in a control room full of screens keyboards and controls

LeShuttle staff

The staff are key to the exceptional service we provide. Dennis has captured some great pictures of the people you’ll meet when you travel with us.

“This is Stuart, one of our UK crew members. He waits for the arrival of our customers to the train. Passenger shuttles will usually have six crew members on board, as well as a Driver and a Chef de Train.”

Anthony - LeShuttle staff member

“Anthony is one of our French crew members. Here he is directing customer vehicles onto the upper deck.”

Naomi - LeShuttle staff member

"Here’s Naomi, one of our UK crew members, modelling our COVID masks.”

Tom - LeShuttle staff member

"Tom, one of our UK drivers, shows off our ‘I'm smiling under my mask’ badges.”

Start your European adventure with LeShuttle

While we cannot promise that you’ll meet Dennis, we can make sure you get from Folkestone to Calais in just 35 minutes. Travelling with us is safe and secure, allowing you to explore Europe from the comfort of your own car.

Experience the Channel Tunnel for yourself