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Irish Sea Tunnel

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Title: Irish Sea Tunnel  
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Subject: Rail transport in Ireland, Transport in England, Tunnels in Ireland, Severn Barrage, H. Montgomery Hyde, Irish Sea
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Irish Sea Tunnel

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.

Possible routes

Four possible routes have at different times been identified, the first two taken together as North Channel routes. These are:

A fifth route, via the Isle of Man, would require two tunnels, but has never been seriously considered due to length and difficult geology. ]

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 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.[1]

If a tunnel was chosen, this would mean tunnelling from near Portpatrick to a point north or south of Belfast Lough.

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 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. If a high speed Dublin-Belfast railway (160 km) is also built, this route would take four to five hours, making it hard to compete with air travel.

It is believed[2] 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".[3]

Irish Mail route

This route is perhaps the most logical, as it provides a more direct connection with the capital of the Republic of Ireland [2]

Tuskar route

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[4] 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.

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.[5][6][7] 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 tunnel was first suggested in 1890[8] and again in 1897,[9] 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.[10]

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.

A tunnel project has been discussed several times in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament).[11][12][13][14] and in the British parliament.[15]

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).[16]

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.[17][18] In other projects, break of gauge problems have been overcome by transshipment,[19] building new standard gauge lines, regauging part of the existing network, the use of variable gauge axles[20] and by the use of dual/mixed gauge tracks.[21]

See also


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