Dig for victory, Tunnel for prosperity!

Dig for victory, Tunnel for prosperity!

by Neil Craig
article from Tuesday 15, July, 2014

OVER THE LAST two decades the Norwegians have revolutionised their transport infrastructure cutting 900 tunnels with a total length of 750 km (1). They have done these at the remarkable cost of under £4 million per km which means the entire process has cost about the same as the new Forth crossing is promised at.

How is this possible and why does it matter to Scotland?

It is possible because tunnelling technology has improved and is still improving year on year. You can get a "slightly used" tunnel boring machine for $300,000 nowadays (2). It matters because, by definition, if something has been done it is possible to do it.

Despite John Swinney's assurance to Holyrood that 2 km of Forth tunnel would cost £6.6 billion (1/2 the cost of the proposed rebuilding of the Panama Canal and about 200 times what an equivalent Norwegian tunnel would be likely to cost) it is possible to build at these prices if we simply do it without spending years on paperwork and lawyers. We have already done it with the Glendoe Hydro Scheme (£140 million) (4) which shows that the 14km of tunnels must have been cut at about Norwegian prices.

What is needed is simply to hire a tunnel drilling company, possibly a Norwegian one on a fixed price contract, with the Act endorsing it giving them total freedom to build, with a waiver of any further government or regulatory interference within, say, 500 m of the tunnel heads No involvement needed from Transport Scotland or other Holyrood bodies.

Would it improve Scotland's infrastructure as much as Norway's has been?

No. We would gain far more. However good Norway's roads the distance from Oslo to Tromso will always be 700m whereas the driving distance from Gourock to Dunoon can be reduced from over 100 miles to less than 2 (they do have a ferry but in another example of Scottish progress on 30th June it was reduced to passengers only). Scotland is an inherently more compact country and there is no reason why the Mull of Kintyre should not be just over a one hour drive from Glasgow and Islay less than two.

The history of human progress is closely related to the history of the reduction in travel times. 1,000 years ago the most powerful parts of Scotland were the islands and roads were little more than cattle tracks. The early Scots kingdom was built around the west Highland islands and shores. Thorfin the Mighty, Earl of Orkney warred on more than equal terms with the King of Scots. Sutherland gained its name because it was to the south of the centre of power. These small communities could be wealthy because the important lines of transport lay on sea lanes. The sea was a highway not a barrier.

The Highland Clearances happened because the Central belt had better communications. Time and again development plans for the Highlands and islands failed because of the expense introduced by poor or non-existent communications. The improvement in tunnelling technology means we can reverse the trend.

Here are some potential projects:

East to west - a Forth estuary tunnel; a Forth tunnel close to the current bridges; one bypassing Dundee (taken together these cut Berwick-Aberdeen to 120 miles); a shortcut under the Moray Firth; connection to Orkney (South Ronaldsay through to the island called Mainland); Skye to Harris; Rhum-Eigg-Mallaig; Oban-Mull; Mull-Iona; a series of tunnels and roads from Gourock to the Cowal Peninsula, Bute, Kintyre branching on the shortest route to Arran and ultimately to Jura and Islay; tunnel to Ulster; another to the Isle of Man. New dual carriageway access to dual tunnel crossings is shown - single tunnels can use existing roads.

Working from that estimate opening up 10 new routes would be likely to increase GNP by £40 billion. Of course this depends on that initial government figure but obviously nobody in government disputes that. OK I will admit that estimate looks too good to be true but it is clearly as reliable as other estimates government base decisions on and even if it were out fortyfold it would still make economic sense to do it.

Paying for it

1) All but 3 MSPs voted to spend £2.3 billion on a new Forth Bridge and they made it quite clear that they should all be willing to stand together against public protests when the promised price is exceeded. This proposal includes not 1 tunnel equivalent to that bridge but 2, built on fixed price contracts, as merely a small part of the overall project. What MSP could object to paying only 40% as much for that out of normal spending?

Perhaps we will know when one of these MSPs is willing to express an opinion, something which they have unanimously refused to do since I first proposed this in 2006. (5)

And now to the zero cost options, at least zero for Holyrood

2) Make them toll roads as the Norwegians have done. I don't like this because I think tolls are an inefficient system, though they have the advantage of being transparent. Possibly the civil disobedience of the people of Skye, in objecting to payment of tolls on a bridge, though they had not objected before it was completed, may have scunnered any future use of tolls.

3) Land capture tax. Charge, say, £10,000 on any new build house in land beyond a tunnel which has risen in value after the tunnel is completed and reserve it to the builders. The difference in value between agricultural land and building land is many times that £10,000 per plot.

4) The same but paying for the tunnels from a government mortgage secured on the value of the land capture tax. The risk is ultimately borne by government rather than borrowers but would involve no profit/risk costs.

5) That companies cutting the tunnels and roads should be allowed, as payment, to purchase land either from government or compulsorily at fair value; with automatic full planning permission; a waiver on all possible government regulations; and the option on a permanent rates waiver so long as the owner provided all council services. I suggest 1 square km for each km of tunnel cut. This costs us absolutely nothing. It would kickstart the building of new communities. The "environmental" effect would be minuscule. Possibly 300 km built on out of 78,772 km across Scotland. It would also produce areas which are effectively Enterprise Zones and we would see if these could be successful without being under the care and protection of local councils. If competition works elsewhere a little competition in governing structures might be beneficial. Seeing Mr Trump has, so far, spent 5 years on his project with little to show for it, I suspect this would get both transport infrastructure and new communities built quickly.

My preference is option 5 with, perhaps, the Islay tunnel being financed by a separate Islay Development Corporation having extensive powers over the whole island. Is there a majority in Holyrood for allowing this to go ahead if it costs them nothing and if not why not?

And Beyond

None of these ideas are set in stone (sorry). Ground conditions or traffic layout might mean a few should be moved along the coast a few miles. The Iona link might well be better done by a causeway. A Forth link beside the current bridge may be unnecessary because the current bridge can be maintained and indeed expanded cheaply. I have taken the Arran crossing by the "back door" because it us the shortest way but a link from Bute or even Ayrshire might, though costing more, provide a better cost benefit ratio etc etc.

I have also made no suggestions for tunnels purely on land, because none of them would have nearly such a spectacular effect as island tunnels. However most Norwegian tunnels are land ones and the potential is there. The A90 is a less than straight route because the Grampians get in the way but they need not be always be so impassable.

Technology is progressing, particularly strength of materials technology so longer, faster and cheaper tunnelling is coming.


(1) Norway's tunnels http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/2244
(2) Slightly used tunnelling machine http://seattletransitblog.com/2009/08/22/for-sale-slightly-used-tunnel-boring-machine/
(3) Glendoe http://www.hydroworld.com/index/display/article-display/cdcba140-0af2-4004-8102-89e998e30ac1/articles/hrhrw/News/UK_utility_completes_tunneling_for_100-MW_Glendoe.html
(4) Official estimate of cost of minor traffic slowing on the Forth crossing http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2010/10/forth-bridge-government-reply.html
(5) Originally suggested 2006 http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2006/12/scottish-tunnel-project.html

 

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