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Saturday, August 06, 2011


  This is my latest article now up at Brian Monteith's ThinkScotland. Please put all comments on there. I think if there is any politician in Scotland interested in progress they will have to support it or be able to give a very good reason. We shall see.

  Over the last 2 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 kn 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 tunneling 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 am 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. When the will was there we have already done this because the price of the Glendoe Hydro Scheme (£140 million) (4) 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 the same Norwegian ones, 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 inteference within, say, 500 m of the tunnel heads

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 1 hour drive from Glasgow and Islay less than 2.

     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 is a map of some potential projects: 

east to west - a Forth estuary tunnel; a tunnel close to the current bridges; one bypassing  Dundee (taken together these might halve travel times to Aberdeen); a shortcut under the Moray Fiirth; connection to Orkney (South Ronaldsay through to the the island called Mainland; Skye to Harris; Skye-Rhum-Eigg; Oban-Mull; Mull-Iona; a series of tunnels and roads from Gourock to the Cowal Penisula, 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.

    Islay (population 2,000) was once the seat of the Lord of the Isles,  far more important than the slightly smaller Isle of Man (pop 80,000). Iona is perhaps the ultimate example of the importance of the change of transport patterns - the burial place of Scottish kings, as central as Westminster Abbey is to English history, it was chosen because it was in the midst of the sea highway of the Scots kingdom. Now it would hardly be more remote from most of us if it were in Australia. It could become a 120 mile, 2 hour, road trip from Glasgow.

    Cutting these tunnels and building these roads would nearly double the accessible shore line of Scotland. The economic effects are, by their nature, not really classifiable and would grow over the the years in line with frowing populations. People routinely live in Glasgow and work in Edinburgh, or vice versa, a distance of 44 miles. Glasgow to Tarbert, Mull of Kintyre could be the same and  Islay only another 25.

  The thing to remember is that, despite  Scottish government projects routinely costing 8 to 200 times their engineering costs there is no question that this can be done at the costs given. If something has been done at that cost then by definition, it is possible to do it  for that cost, when the political will is there.

Economic benefit

I will assume that Ulster, Man and Orkney (which has an oil fund) would pay for at least 90% of their connections. That leaves us with about 120 km, most of them dualled and about the same again in new connecting roads. At £4 million per km of tunnel and assuming half that for traditional roads comes out at  £1 billion or less.

The Scottish government assure us any repair work on the Forth Bridge not involving its closure but merely  "over a sustained period, involving lane and carriageway closures, would potentially result in: ...economic output falling to a level in the order of £1 billion" (4). Part time reductions to 1 carriageway are very far short of closure so we can assume a full closure would cost at least £4 billion annually. We can balance the fact that even closing the Forth bridge doesn't exactly make Fife impossible to enter with the relatively high population there .

     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. £40 billion annually is thus as reliable as any other estimates Holyrood uses to make policy. It amounts to an increase in GNP of abour 1/3rd. OK so the estimate is only as reliable as government promises but the project would clearly be justified at a small fraction of that gain.

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 mahority 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.e,

  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 tunneling is coming.

(1) Norway's tunnels
(2) Slightly used tunneling machine
(3) Glendoe
(4) Official estimate of cost of minor traffic slowing on the Forth crossing
(5) Originally suggested 2006

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From Sandy Henderson - some relevant sums - the reinforced concrete lining of a 10 metre diameter tunnel would likely be no more than 4.5 cubic metres per metre run. Even at todays prices, these materials would cost less than £1.5 million per kilometre, especially on a big contract where bargaining power and economies of scale come into play.
Ironically the quantities of materials, such as concrete and steel are not that much different for a tunnel than a road, as a ribbon is a weaker structure than a tube.
One big advantage of a tunnel is the huge amount of cost that surface works involve dealing with disturbance to parties along the route and contingencies arising is largely avoided. Also once operations are fully underway, weather is much less of an issue.
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