Irish Sea fixed crossing
The Irish Sea fixed crossing is a proposed tunnel or bridge that would link the islands of Ireland and Great Britain via the Irish Sea. If a tunnel, it may be a railway tunnel, similar to the Channel Tunnel beneath the English Channel.
Four possible routes have at different times been identified, the first two taken together as North Channel routes. These are:
- Kintyre Route (Campbeltown-North East County Antrim)
- Galloway Route (Stranraer-Belfast)
- Irish Mail Route (Holyhead-Dublin)
- Tuskar Route (Fishguard -Rosslare)
North Channel (Kintyre) route
This is the shortest route at around 19 km (12 mi), from the Mull of Kintyre to County Antrim but is very unlikely to be adopted. It would mean constructing a railway or improved roads (or both) following a roundabout route through some mountainous terrain, mainly in Scotland, but to some extent also in Northern Ireland, and also needing further undersea tunnels in Scotland. If it ever were adopted, passengers would to a high degree still use ferries and aircraft, since it would be a big detour for trains from England. Trains would have to go via Glasgow and around 155 mi (250 km) further to reach Belfast. Even if the High Speed 2 railway is fully built, the travel time London-Belfast would not be below 4 hours. Car travellers from England would have much shorter driving distance when using the traditional ferry routes.
North Channel (Galloway) route
This route has been proposed both as either a tunnel or a bridge.
This would result in a shorter tunnel than the southern routes (34 km/21 mi), and one within the United Kingdom, though the Irish government and the European Union might contribute funds, nevertheless. However, because of the Beaufort's Dyke sea trench, this route would be deeper than the southern routes.
In general, travel to Belfast would benefit from this route. The London to Belfast distance would be about 466 mi (750 km) taking about 3½ hours on a high-speed train. This route would improve travel from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, and most English cities, to Belfast and Dublin.
The Dublin-Belfast-Glasgow-Edinburgh route would be possible. However, the route between the two capitals (London-Dublin) would be indirect. Even if a high speed Dublin-Belfast railway (160 km) is also built, this route will still take four to five hours, making it hard to compete with air travel.
It is believed that such a project was considered by railway engineer Luke Livingston Macassey in the 1890s as "a rail link using either a tunnel, a submerged "tubular bridge" or a solid causeway".
Irish Mail route
This route is perhaps the most logical, as it would be about 100 km (62 mi) long, and would provide a more direct connection between Ireland and Britain. Plans for a fixed link on this route go back as far as 1799, when there were plans to build a bridge from Howth Head to Holyhead. The main London-Dublin route is more direct and high-speed trains would be competitive with airlines, especially with HS2. Birmingham and other cities are also on this route. The distance from London to Dublin would be 550 km, taking 2½ hours on high-speed trains.
The Institute of Engineers of Ireland's 2004 Vision of Transport in Ireland in 2050 imagines a tunnel to be built between the ports of Fishguard and Rosslare along with a new container port on the Shannon Estuary, linking a freight line to Europe. This report also includes ideas for a Belfast-Dublin-Cork high-speed train, and for a new freight line from Rosslare to Shannon.
This route would be approximately twice the distance of the English Channel Tunnel at over 100km (roughly 60 miles long).
Although London-Dublin and London-Belfast routes would be competitive with air travel, subject to ticket prices, routes from central and northern England and Scotland to Ireland would probably not be competitive.
On the British side, a high-speed line duplicating the Great Western Main Line has been proposed. However, this would be likely to be a lower priority than one running between London, Birmingham and the North West, duplicating the West Coast Main Line. Congestion through the Severn Tunnel is already so great that much freight from the Welsh ports travels a circuitous route via Gloucester; the increased traffic generated by an Irish Sea Tunnel would demand a new crossing of the Severn Estuary.
Recent proposals for a barrage across the mouth of the River Severn have included the option of running a new road and rail crossing between Cardiff and Bristol, which would help this issue.
The M4 motorway ends near Llanelli. Any motorway extension would pass through rural areas and close to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which would generate opposition; however, terminals could be located further inland.
As the IEI's report notes "[This report's object] was to cast a vision, essentially an optimistic vision, of transport in Ireland in the middle of this twenty-first century". It also includes a second English Channel Tunnel.
History and politics
Linking Britain to Ireland by a bridge was first suggested in 1799. Then a tunnel was first suggested in 1890 and again in 1897, with a British application for £15,000 towards the cost of carrying out borings and soundings in the North Channel to see if a tunnel between Ireland and Scotland was viable. The link would have been of immense commercial benefit, was significant strategically and would have meant faster transatlantic travel from Britain, via Galway and other Irish ports. Sixty years later Harford Hyde, Unionist MP for North Belfast, called for a tunnel to be built.
In 1994 the Channel Tunnel opened between Great Britain and France. Technical challenges of constructing a tunnel were overcome. However, the Channel Tunnel was delivered overbudget and predicted traffic levels have never materialised.
Economics and politics
Half the air traffic at Dublin Airport is to Britain, with 8,300,000 passengers per annum. The Dublin to London-Heathrow air route is one of the busiest international routes with 1.974 million passengers in 2007, and there were about 12.3 million air passengers between the Republic and the United Kingdom (2007).
The Channel Tunnel has failed so far to generate the original passenger numbers expected (partially because of low cost airlines – an industry which did not exist when the project was underway). It now has nine million passengers per year, more than air travel, if only counting those who have destinations near London, Paris or Brussels.
The Channel Tunnel also illustrates the funding problem that a tunnel cannot be built and funded in stages, so cost over-runs (such as experienced on the Channel Tunnel) cannot be spread over time. Construction would also take a long time to complete, so the project would be an expensive, long-term, high risk investment.
Opposition to the tunnel might be mounted by powerful corporate interests, particularly ferry companies, shipping lines and airlines. NIMBY local interest groups and environmental groups might oppose individual infrastructure changes.
Various Irish government studies have concluded that an Irish Sea tunnel is, as yet, economically unfeasible. The benefit compared to air and ferry travel does not justify the cost.
Change of gauge and electrification
One of the challenges for an Irish Sea tunnel could be the break of gauge between the 1,435 mm standard gauge in Britain and the 1,600 mm Irish broad gauge. In other projects, break of gauge problems have been overcome by transshipment, building new standard gauge lines, regauging part of the existing network, the use of variable gauge axles and by the use of dual/mixed gauge tracks. For goods sold in shops, storage facilities are needed in order to sort items per shop, when the last transport to the shops is transported on road. Standard gauge track can be built to such storages near the tunnel. The problem is mainly for freight traffic. For passenger traffic it is assumed that a standard gauge railway would reach the main station of Belfast or Dublin, where most passengers would end their journey or change to local trains anyway.
- List of bridge-tunnels
- Saudi-Egypt Causeway
- Bridge of the Horns
- Orkney Tunnel
- Helsinki to Tallinn Tunnel
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