Leader: Subsea tunnels plan is well worth floating

If the date was April 1, readers could be forgiven for thinking news today of a potential network of tunnels linking Scotland’s islands is a practical joke.

Fresh from a “fact-finding” visit to the Faroe Islands, Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart has proposed exploring the construction of fixed links in the Western Isles and between Mull and the mainland.

Mr Stewart said talks should also begin in the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos, “given the timescales of these sorts of projects”.

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The minister conceded the projects would be “not cheap”, with the cost of the tunnels estimated at around £20 million per kilometre.

Inside a tunnel in the Faroes,  where the world's first undersea roundabout opened in 2020Inside a tunnel in the Faroes,  where the world's first undersea roundabout opened in 2020
Inside a tunnel in the Faroes, where the world's first undersea roundabout opened in 2020

Local objections could also prove a barrier, although Scotland’s new-found inability to maintain a serviceable fleet of ferries may help convince many islanders of the merits of subsea transportation.

The experience of the 18-island Faroes, where the world’s first undersea roundabout opened in 2020, “shows it can be done”, Mr Stewart said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan for a bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland appeared similarly far-fetched, and has been rejected in a feasibility study. However the inter-island tunnels proposal would not have to contend with the logistical challenges posed by Beaufort’s Dyke, the deep trench that runs down the Irish Sea.

It is in the nature of ambitious infrastructure projects to appear at first infeasible. Eyebrows were no doubt raised, to say the least, when the first stages of the UK’s rail and motorway networks were mooted.

The biggest barrier to Mr Stewart’s plan may not come from cost, logistics, or local objections, but from an inability or unwillingness from the UK and Scottish governments to work together.

In a terse response to the plans, a spokesman for the Scottish Government’s Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth said: “If Mr Stewart is interested in sharing any of the facts he has gathered from his trip, the Scottish Government would be more than willing to hear them, recognising, as Mr Stewart will of course respect, that transport is devolved.”

A project of this scale would require the setting aside of internecine squabbles between Westminster and Holyrood. It seems we remain some distance from arriving at that destination.



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