Johnson’s bridge to nowhere

It’s hardly surprising that there are reports that the UK Treasury has cancelled Boris Johnson’s grandiose scheme to construct a fixed link, either a bridge or a tunnel, between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Just about any engineering project is possible if money and resources are unlimited. A fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland could potentially overcome the massive challenges of the great depths of the Beaufort Dyke, the rapid and dangerous currents and the frequent stormy weather which strikes the Sheuch in the winter. It could even potentially deal with the massive amounts of dangerous and unstable munitions which were dumped in the North Channel by the British Government in the decades following the First World War. However these issues could only be solved by throwing immense amounts of public money at the problem.

The Channel Tunnel between England and France cost £4.65 billion to build, approximately £12 billion in today’s money. The project took 13,000 workers six years to complete. Although the distance across the English Channel is greater than the distance between Scotland and Northern Ireland across the North Channel, the English Channel is far shallower than the North Channel. At its lowest point, the Channel Tunnel is 75 m (250 ft) deep below the sea bed and 115 m (380 ft) below sea level. The Beaufort Dyke in the North Channel, which any fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to cross, is 50 km (30 miles) long, 3.5 km (2 miles) wide and 200 – 300 m (700 – 1,000 ft) deep. It is also a dumping site for munitions which could easily be disturbed by construction work.

A fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland would be far more expensive, most initial estimates range between £15 and £20 billion, with figures of up to £33 billion also being cited. It should also be noted that the final bill of £4.65 billion for the Channel Tunnel was 80% greater than the initial cost estimates.

Massive budget overruns are commonplace for huge civil engineering projects in the UK. London’s Crossrail project was originally budgeted at £14.8 billion but is now expected to cost over £18.6 billion and is still not open for regular rail services. The High Speed Rail project HS2 connecting London with Birmingham was originally forecast to cost £32.7 billion when the project was given the go ahead in 2012. Recent estimates put the likely cost at an eye watering £107.7 billion. Given the geological and logistical challenges of building a fixed link across a deep and stormy stretch of water between Scotland and Northern Ireland, any initial cost estimate is likely to balloon.

None of this factors in the costs of improving transport links to the site of the proposed fixed link , the A77 between Glasgow and Stranraer and the A75 from Dumfries can barely cope with the amount of traffic using them just now, never mind any increased traffic generated by the new crossing. Both these roads would require extensive upgrades to make them fit for purpose as connecting routes to a new fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If the new crossing was to be a railway tunnel, there would have to be major upgrades on the Glasgow to Stranraer line which is single track and not electrified south of Ayr. The line would have to be dualled and electrified. The old Stranraer to Dumfries line, closed in the 1960s, would have to be rebuilt. The Scottish Government has recently pledged to reopen the Stranraer to Dumfries rail line although the project is ranked lower in priority than reopening the railway line to Leven in Fife and extending the Borders Railway from its current terminus at Tweedbank all the way through to Carlisle.

Additionally there is the not insignificant problem that railway lines in Ireland are built to a different gauge from those in Great Britain and most of Europe. The rails on Irish railway tracks are 1600mm (5ft 3 inches) apart. The gauge on British and most European railway lines is 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in). This gauge difference would make it impossible for trains to run directly through from Ireland to Scotland and beyond unless extensive work was carried out to alter the gauge of Irish railways or to make the sections of Irish track connecting to the link dual gauge. Alternatively trains running straight through could be equipped with special variable gauge bogies. The gauge is altered by slowly driving the train through a gauge changer or gauge changing facility which would have to be built at either end of the fixed link.

Given all these issues, the costs of a fixed link between Scotland and Ireland would be exorbitant and unjustifiable given the volume of traffic which crosses between the two countries. The Channel Tunnel links the South East and Midlands of England,with a population approaching 30 million with the densely populated areas of Belgium, Northern France and the Dutch Randstad region, which also has a total population approaching 30 million. Additionally it provides direct high speed rail links between London, Paris, and Brussels, three major capital cities with a total population in excess of 20 million people. Approximately 26% of trade in goods between the UK and continental Europe goes through the Channel Tunnel each year, which represents a total value of £120 billion annually.

The total population of Scotland and Ireland combined is only around 11 million. Traffic between the two countries via a fixed link would never come close to that of the Channel Tunnel, yet it would be significantly more expensive and challenging to build. It is unlikely that it would ever come close to justifying its cost.

So it was only to be expected that the Treasury has cancelled the project. It is equally unsurprising that the Scottish Government reports that at no point in the process did the Conservative Government speak to the Scottish Government about the project or about what priorities the Scottish Government has identified for improving transport links in South West Scotland or between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Tories were far too busy pontificating about the moral standards of the cast members of pantos in Aberdeen.

The plan for a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland was never realistic. Johnson’s bridge to nowhere was never about the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was always a vanity project about the desperate need of Boris Johnson for publicity and the chance for him to attach his name to something that will outlast his time in office and provide him with a legacy. He needn’t worry about that. Johnson’s legacy will be the end of the UK and an independent Scotland.

I have a physiotherapy appointment tomorrow so won’t be doing a piece for the blog as I am always wiped out afterwards.

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