Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Tunnel to the Hebrides

My letter submitted to the Stornoway Gazette for possible publication this week, with some links to further information.

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It was heartening to read of serious consideration for a mainland fixed-link in last week's Stornoway Gazette. However, this was spoilt by reading in the mainland media of imagined costs being "Well over 10 billion pounds" [article in Independent, Daily Mail article picture by CJCampbell]. Probably some commentators, rather than research the issue, assumed the cost would be the same as the incompetently managed English Channel Tunnel. That infamous project consisted of two train tunnels, tracks, a service tunnel, and huge support infrastructure. It was marred by bi-nation politics and contractual problems, resulting in one of the worst cost overruns in engineering history.

The cost of a fixed-link mainland connection here should be very different - if it is built the "Norwegian way". Norway has over 900 tunnels, carving through and under all manner of geology, of which 22 are subsea road tunnels. Using their methods, a tunnel from the Hebrides to the mainland could cost around 110 million pounds – just one percent of the cost of the Channel Tunnel!

Examine the Lærdalstunnelen [basic statistics in English here, more detail here] in Norway. This road tunnel, completed in 2000, is nearly 25 kilometres long. It was built with safety in mind, containing 15 turning bays, 48 lay-bys, ventilation, and several huge rest-caverns with different coloured lighting to break up the monotony of driving. Total project cost? Not 10 billion pounds, but 86 million pounds.

This level of cost is more the rule than the exception for sensibly planned long-distance tunnels. A recent Comhairle presentation gave similar costs for other Norwegian tunnels, such as the Frøya (5.6km for £44m), Hitra (5.3km for £31m) and Kristiansund (6km for £51m) road tunnels. These connect mainland Norway with islands containing a few thousand inhabitants each – sound familiar? Norwegian tunnels can also be deep; in the last few weeks, the "dig" stage of the Eiksund road tunnel [see page 9 of this 6Mb PDF-format magazine] has been completed. This serves the island communities of Hareid, Herøy, Sande and Ulstein, at its deepest point being 287 metres below sea level and 61 metres below the sea bed.

There's an added bonus with digging a tunnel – it generates rock, which could either be used to build and strengthen much-needed coastal defences, or sold for revenue. As Lafarge lobbied for several years in Harris, there's a keen demand for this commodity.

It is not surprising that progressive northern periphery countries, such as Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and the Faroe Islands, are turning more towards tunnels. Unlike the "last century technology" of causeways and bridges, tunnels do not suffer the ravages of storms, exacerbate erosion, impede boat passage or interfere with tidal flows and fishing grounds. Islands connected by tunnels do not suffer food and supply shortages or disruption to businesses, when bad weather closes causeways, bridges and ferry services. And unless cryptozoologists discover an "undersea bird", it is unlikely that the RSPB will be able to lodge a planning objection.

The next time you are crossing an exposed causeway in windy weather, your plane hits turbulence and suddenly drops with your stomach, or you revisit your fried breakfast over the side of a ferry on a heaving sea, think: wouldn't you prefer to be driving through a smooth, quick, incident-free tunnel instead?

It has been a long struggle for the funding to repair causeways damaged in the January 2005 storm. Does anyone seriously believe that, when these same local causeways are again damaged by major storms, the Scottish Executive will repeatedly agree to the Comhairle's cap-in-hand grovels for repair funding?  Sooner rather than later, the response from Edinburgh will be to "fix it yourself or go the same way as St Kilda". In the long-term, tunnels, not fragile and exposed causeways and bridges, are the only robust, sustainable and future-proof way of connecting these islands to each other and to the mainland.

More information

Outline of the Breiðadalsheiði – Botnsheiði road tunnels in Iceland:

The Hvalfjördur tunnel in Iceland. This went under a fjord and struck hot springs, but was still completed 8 months ahead of schedule:

The Norðoyatunnilin tunnel in the Faroe Islands: 

International Tunnelling Assocation:

Norwegian Tunnelling Society:

Icelandic Tunnelling Society:

Community council in Orkney considers tunnel (point 6g):

Orkney fixed-link article in The Times:


  1. Totally agree. The Comhairle may have got this one right. A tunnel should mean no more empty shelves in the shops in winter.

  2. That is the most rational exposition I've read on the subject so far John, and when you look at it from the Norweigian angle it seems a perfectly sound and affordable prospect. I don't doubt our bureaucrats will find a way to muddy things up along the way though.

  3. I had the misfortune to visit North Uist for a meeting not that long ago. The drive from Glasgow to Skye was pleasant and on time. We arrived at Uig to find no ferry, due to the weather. Safety comes first, so this is acceptable.An overnight stay was required. We were royally fleeced for the cost of so-called "accommodation" in Skye, which I suspect was aimed primarily at worried people who had missed a ferry.We sailed one day late. Consequently, our meeting in North Uist was hurried, and we had to return to Skye and then Glasgow the same day. A tunnel would not have deviated us from our schedule, and would have been much, much cheaper than the combined cost of "accommodation" not fit for my dog in Skye and the ferry fare. But alas, Colin is right. Even if a tunnel is proposed and they start digging, it will exceed budget. And go up and up. It's what we do in this country; every major building project doubles, triples in cost. The channel tunnel; Wembley stadium; the Olympic facilities; even much closer to home, the Scottish parliament building. The cost may start at 115 million pounds, but by the time the first car goes through (and at what toll to defray the cost?), it will be closer to half a billion pounds.

  4. Well researched and well put John. I think the only way to prevent a typical British blunder with this is to hire the Scandinavians from the git go as the project managers. If it would work, I think it would be much better for the Western Isles economy than the wind farms!

  5. Great minds think alike - I did an article also using the Norwegian example for a rolling project of building tunnels to a number of Scottish Isles & also Ulster & Man.

  6. The problem is that politicians listen to all the loonie lobbies and fail to get on with projects for the greater good of the public.Look at how much they are prepared to waste on The Dome, Holyrood, the Olympics, th world Cup etc..Almost everybody else around the world sseem to be able to do engineering better than us nowadays and our representatives don't seem to care.

  7. Thanks for the links to the Orkney story, as a child there I used to wish for a tunnel so we wouldn't have to go on the choppy sea crossing or the bumpy flight. To be honest, as an adult I still wish the same!

  8. I just wanted to leave a post saying love your blog. Been a fan of the Outer Hebrides ever since my holidays up there. With fondest regards. Michelle

  9. Great letter. I see it made it into the paper.

  10. All well and good, but I sincerely hope there's a Sabbath Gate installed at one end to keep it closed on a Sunday.

  11. David: yes, possibly. But it would be a heck of a bummer to drive through a 25 mile tunnel, just to reach a padlocked gate and a sign saying "Outer Hebrides: closed on Sundays".

  12. Good one. As someone who spent an hour dry-heaving on the ferry trip from hell recently, I'd go for a tunnel option any time.Sensible financing will be the problem. It's one of the bad things that England and Scotland have in common. A need to have overtly complex financing arrangements that (a) push the overall cost way up and (b) eventually just massively profit the shareholders and executives of several companies. As you say, the Norwegians do it cheaply. Odd, isn't it? The Norwegians have loads of money in their oil reserve, over 100 billion pounds, but they build things cheaply. We have no money as it's spent on fighting illegal wars, but still pay up absurd amounts to build parliaments, domes, stadiums, tunnels. Ironic.

  13. I see your letter was printed in the Gazette, Mr Kirriemuir.A tunnel is a sensible idea. If the Outer Hebrides was still part of the Viking/Norse empire, who knows what our transport links would be like now???

  14. An interesting article. Thank you.

  15. John, here's an interesting article from the BBC's website yesterday... hmmmm, food for thought?

  16. Is it time for Saor-stàit neo-eisimeil Uibhist? « Silversprite5 September 2008 at 01:00

    [...] tunnel to the UK mainland from Uig - which the Norwegians have confirmed is technically feasible - would provide a 24/7 fixed link - [...]

  17. Since then the Glendoe hydro project has been completed, by German engineers. It included a 9km tunnel & the whole thing came in at £120M. It seems the rules of engeering can produce the same results in Scotland as Norway when the will & foreign companies, are there.