Workers tunneling under the English Channel have created the first land link between Britain and the Continent, connecting 31 miles of tunnel in a prodigious feat of engineering and finance.

TransManche Link, the construction consortium building the "Chunnel," said the historic linkup occurred at 8:25 p.m. Tuesday when British workers sent a probe 2 inches in diameter through to their French colleagues.Linking England and France, the tunnel symbolizes the growing unification of Europe. It also partially fulfills a dream of Napoleon, who wanted to send his armies through such a tunnel to conquer Britain.

The celebration was marred by an accident that hurt eight French workers, officials said.

A small locomotive carrying the workers along a light railroad track in the French side of the tunnel lurched off its rails and hurtled into a convoy of wagons Tuesday night, a spokesman for the company Transmanche Link said.

Eurotunnel PLC, the Anglo-French consortium overseeing the world's largest engineering project, plans for high-speed trains to pass through the Channel Tunnel in June 1993.

Eventually a train trip from Paris to London should take three hours.

Despite her countrymen's fears of losing their ancient moat against Europe, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described the breakthrough as "a very exciting moment."

"It is an example of what Europe is about," she said in London. "This is Europe in practice."

In London, the conservative Daily Express newspaper noted Wednesday that Britons will be able to walk to France for the first time since the Ice Age.

"This is a hugely historic moment because it means, in effect, that Britain is no longer an island," a construction union official in Calais said. Threading a spinning probe the width of a garden hose through 100 yards of chalk under the Channel bears the first tangible fruit in three years of drilling.

Initial tests indicated the two halves were 20 inches out of alignment. Technicians will be more certain Wednesday, but they called the rough line-up "exceptional."

The workers will now bore out a one-yard hole. Tunnelers are expected to walk through and greet each other with handshakes in a few weeks.

The tunneling machine on the French side will then guide itself by laser toward the British machine, ensuring perfect alignment.

Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand will meet mid-tunnel on Jan. 26.The linkup came on the maintenance tunnel, the smallest of three tunnels being dug. The other two will handle rail traffic - freight and special piggyback trains that will carry passengers and cars.

About 80 percent of all the drilling is now complete.

Eight workers suffered injuries, two seriously, about 90 minutes after Tuesday's linkup when a tractor rolled over on them in a service gallery, authorities in nearby Sangatte reported.

Since the tunnel construction began in 1987, there have been seven accidental deaths on the British side and two on the French side.

The tunnel's cost has soared from an initial estimate of $9.4 billion to $16.7 billion, including an extra $1.97 billion in case of unforeseen cost overruns.

The digging is accomplished by gargantuan boring machines that bring to mind images from Japanese monster movies.

Each resembles a gnawing worm, some three-stories high, with a spinning drill of hundreds of blades. Mechanical legs slap together the concrete tunnel lining in the wake of the advancing drill head.

When its work is done, the drilling machine on the French side will be hauled out in pieces. The one on the British side will dig a side passage, and be buried in cement. Officials say it is too costly to extricate the machine.

The tunnels were joined 13 1/2 miles southeast of Folkestone, England, the British terminus near Dover, and 10 miles northwest of Sangatte, near Calais.



The Channel Tunnel

The "Chunnel," a 31-mile-long tunnel connecting England and France, will change the geography of Europe. The $16.7 billion project is expected to open June 15, 1993, six months after the 12-nation European Community drops its trade barriers and becomes a barrier-free marketplace of 320 million consumers.

Tunnel will run 80-100 feet below the seabed.

Trains will carry vehicles and passengers through two one-way tunnels.

Tunneling machines: These colossal pieces of equipment simultaneousy dig, remove rock and put up tunnel walls. With a laser beam to keep the driver on course, the machine presses curved slabs into the newly exposed earth at a rate of nearly 20 feet an hour.

Traveling the tunnel will take 35 minutes. During the trip, passengers will be able to stay in their vehicles or stroll about the shuttle trains.

The overall length of the tunnel is 31 miles; 24 miles of it will be underwater.