The Celtic Connection: We Can Build It, But Should We?

Now that our former National Officer, Pamela Dennison, has moved on to the dizzy heights of working for the Department for Transport (don’t worry folks, she is still fighting for hauliers), we have been asked to rotate the production of the regular CILT slot in Export & Freight around the Northern Ireland regional committee.

Having drawn the short straw, I have decided to share my thoughts on the so-called Celtic Connection. I would emphasise that these are my personal views, and do not represent any official CILT policy.
Firstly then, what is the Celtic Connection? Well, it is not a pop band, but the name given to a fixed link between Great Britain and the island of Ireland.
The project has been given recent emphasis by Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioning a view into connectivity within the United Kingdom, overseen by Sir Peter Hendy, Network Rail Chairman. This team, which includes fellow Export & Freight columnist Seamus Lenehy, is scheduled to report back by summer 2021.
The concept of a fixed link between Great Britain and Ireland has existed since the coming of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century, as a combination of bridges and tunnels. There are 4 main potential routes. 

From north to south, these are as follows:

  • Kintyre Route: The shortest route at c 20 miles, connecting County Antrim to the Kintyre peninsular in Scotland;
  • Galloway Route: Slightly longer at c 25 miles from Larne to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland;
  • Irish Mail Route: At c 50 miles, from Dublin to Holyhead about twice as long as the northern routes;
  • Southern Route: Longer still, at c 60 miles, between Rosslare & Fishguard.

Challenging

The first question is whether it is technically feasible to bridge these distances? Well fortunately, engineers like nothing more than a challenge. The Channel Tunnel between Folkestone, England and Couquelles in France is over 30 miles long, and the Saipan tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido is slightly longer, and deeper (800feet below sea level), and built in a geologically active zone. Both tunnels are rail tunnels, and having experienced them, both are remarkably boring. Contrary to rumour, you can’t see any fish from the train Windows. The EU has a plan to build a c 60 mile long rail tunnel between Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia.
For drivers, the Hong Kong – Macau Bridge is c 35 miles long, and consists of a series of cable stayed bridges, an underground tunnel, and a series of artificial islands. Not surprisingly, it features a camera system to monitor driver alertness.
So, whilst there would be some massive technical challenges to overcome, including shipping, and a large trench called Beaufort’s Dyke which is full of unused munitions, there is no reason to believe that a fixed crossing is not feasible. But that leads on to other questions such as even if it could be built, where should it go, who would pay, and is it actually necessary?
Starting with the route, we can fairly quickly eliminate the northern and southern crossings. The route to Kintyre is scenic, but goes in the wrong direction, with very poor onward connection. The route from Fishguard to Rosslare would almost certainly negate any journey time savings against ferries with the length of the connecting routes.

So that leaves two feasible routes, in essence NI to Scotland and ROI to Wales. The choice is seemingly a “no-brainer”, given that the northern route is about half the distance of the latter, and that any route from Dublin would not be part of connecting the UK. But I don’t think it is that simple. Currently, 20% of NI’s RoRo freight travels via Dublin, and with the road infrastructure in Wales (A55 is a dual carriageway) is far superior to the A75, which we all know takes a long time just to get to Carlisle. Given that much of the traffic to NI retailers comes from DC’s located in the centre of England, a route via Scotland doesn’t make much sense. Furthermore, a route from Dublin potentially opens up different sources of funding, such as the EU and possibly even the USA. But I think it’s probably wise to step back away from the politics!

Real Issues

But the real question is whether a fixed link is necessary. For example, Sicily has a population similar to Ireland (c 5 million), and yet there is no bridge over the Strait of Messina despite it being proposed since Roman times and only being three miles across.

The fact is the existing ferries across the Irish Sea do a great job for freight, without getting the credit they deserve, with a varied competitive offering for different markets, and the budget airlines have revolutionised the passenger market. 

Whilst that is not of much comfort when your load is stuck at the port, or during the Covid lockdown, it makes it incredibly difficult to see how the numbers could stack up for a future fixed link across the Irish Sea. 

Part of the Hendy review terms of reference was to look at the environmental aspects, and there are real issues that need to be addressed, but personally I can only conclude that fundamentally, the existing infrastructure works and is cost effective (although please could the powers that be do a better job with Sailrail!). If anything, perhaps Covid and Brexit have reminded us of how much we have taken for granted.