18 November 1963: The Dartford Tunnel opens

Travel back in time to 18 November 1963, to just before midday when the newly excavated tunnel beneath the Thames at Dartford was to open, and you’ll probably see a sight not unlike that you’d see today: a queue of cars waiting impatiently to go through it.

There would, however, be one very telling difference: the 1963 traffic jam was made up of drivers who actually wanted to be there. In fact, they had been there for two hours before the grand opening.

As The Times reported, “there had been queues of motorists wanting to be among the first through. Most of the early traffic were sight-seers…”

That may seem odd to today’s rushed drivers – perverse even, when you think that each driver would emerge the other end two shillings and six pence lighter.

But perhaps their interest had been piqued when The Times published a pre-opening review: “Driving through the tunnel yesterday, your Correspondent was impressed by the effective diffused lighting…”

The opening of the Dartford Tunnel (renamed the Dartford Crossing after the addition of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge) was a big event.

The tunnel had been in the planning since the 1920s, and just as work was finally under way, the diggers had to down tools when war broke out. When the ‘west bore’ was finished, it had cost around £13m and was nearly a mile long.

What’s more, the tunnel came with a state-of-the-art control room, which monitored everything from ventilation and visibility to the flow of traffic. And woe betide you if you broke down. If you couldn’t shift your car within 15 minutes, you were charged £1 for every ten minutes you were stuck by the side of the road.

In 1963, the number of vehicles using the tunnel was estimated at around two million a year (today, it is around 50 million) – it soon became apparent that a second tunnel was needed, which opened in 1980.

Then in 1986, the new M25 brought even more traffic. So in 1991, the towering Queen Elizabeth II bridge was built to relieve some of the pressure – but alas, it has not been enough to do away with traffic jams.

Also on this day

18 November 2002: UN weapons inspectors arrive in Iraq

On this day in 2002, UN weapons inspectors arrived in in Baghdad in a bid to discover the truth about Iraq’s WMD programme. Read more here.