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The tunnel kings of Europe

The Faroe Islanders are in the process of connecting up their archipelago with a series of breathtaking tunnels. Could they be setting an example for the UK to follow?

A new undersea roundabout, which forms part of the Faroe Islands' growing tunnel network - Credit: faroephoto.com

If hot air could build tunnels, the UK would surely be the best-connected nation in Europe. But despite much ambitious talk of subterranean routes linking up disparate parts of the country, plans to actually do so rarely even get as far as the drawing board.

The country’s latest tunnel visions include a Scottish government suggestion for a 17-mile link to the Western Isles via the Isle of Skye. The cost is put at £450m. Further north, recent disruption to internal ferry services in the Shetland Islands has brought the idea of relatively short inter-island tunnels back to the table. The idea of a ten-mile £100m tunnel from northern Scotland to the Orkney Islands, on the other hand, appears to have gone off the boil since it was mooted in 2005.

And then there’s the “Boris Tunnel” from Scotland the Northern Ireland – at a conservatively estimated cost of £20bn it could be seen as a relatively modest price to pay for stitching the Union back together, but it’s far from clear whether such back-of-the-envelope estimates include the price for relaying a direct railway from Dumfries to Stranraer or the potentially even greater cost of adjusting Irish railway track gauges to match those of the UK.

Meanwhile, in the  Faroe Islands they’ve been building tunnels as though it were national obsession – a process kicked off by ‘mother Denmark’s’ post-War Marshall Aid, when the 18 islands’ impossibly sheer mountains were first breached in the name of connectivity.

In the past quarter of a century, they’ve moved from such land-based tunnels to subsea links connecting individual islands, starting with a relatively modest 5km-tunnel joining Vágar and its airport with the main islands. This was followed by a 6kms-plus tunnel to link the second town, Klaksvík, with the main road network.

Then, late last year saw the opening of more than 11km of tunnel, linking the capital Tórshavn with the north of the archipelago, reducing a 55km journey by the circuitous coastal route from Tórshavn to Rúnavík to just 17km.

The surprising thing is that we in the UK have a direct stake in both this and the next proposed tunnel, a link to the first of two more southerly islands, Sandoy.

The 2.64bn Danish kroner project (£300 million) is financed in the main by UK and US pension funds. The financial model sees the tunnels paying back their costs through tolls by 2040 and the fact that such conservative institutions are ready to bet on such a financial return tells its own story: the Faroese have taken the risk out of tunnel building.

For, however easy our northern neighbours have begun to make it look, tunnelling is a risky financial business replete with risks that can be hard to forecast. There have been spectacular tunnel failures: the Norwegian island city of Ålesund was linked to the mainland by 12km of tunnels and bridges in a scheme conceived and financed before the 2007 financial crash. By 2009, drivers had paid 1.37bn Norwegian kroner in tolls, but the tunnel construction company still owed more than as much again and went bankrupt in the early 1990s.

Such failure is as nothing compared with the Channel Tunnel, which the British and French governments determined should be built at private risk, while also being wide and high enough to accommodate lorries on board trains. It is the small shareholders who have largely met the price of serial failures and rescues.

Teitur Samuelson, is boss of the Faroese company formed to build the two newest tunnels and was brought in from one the islands’ largest fish-farming companies to broker the finance and manage the project and its Nordic construction companies.

“There should be a financial benefit in this but it is more a political decision, really. When I started the job in 2015 the political decision had already been taken but there were long discussions as to whether it should be public or private.”

The eventual outcome was that the ambitious Y-shaped tunnel linking the archipelago’s two main islands, with its undersea roundabout and dramatic artwork illuminations, would be constructed ahead of the simpler and shorter Sandoy tunnel (already started), because it would yield a stronger revenue stream. The Sandoy tunnel will now open in 2023.

Initial soundings have also been made ahead of the most ambitious tunnel to date: the 21-26km tunnel from Sandoy on to Suðuroy, the southernmost island. But, says Samuelson, the cost won’t be far either side of three billion kroner.

Such is the level of expertise established that a base cost of 120m kroner per kilometre is pretty much written in stone. That said, the Faroese do have advantages: the hard basaltic bedrock has few fault lines and is so impermeable that many tunnels require no linings at all, making costs more predictable, and delays and hitches less likely.

“It’s about the desire to be connected,” says Samuelson. “There is a will to have roads to all villages so it started in the 60s and 70s and the subsea tunnels are just an extension of that. We have made very big investment in infrastructure in the last 50 years.”

And there’s the rub, perhaps: it’s a commitment to connectivity that is simply not second nature in the UK. When the Suðuroy tunnel is completed, the Faroese will either have to stop building sub-sea tunnels or think about connecting the outlying islands that are home to dozens rather than even hundreds of people. So, could there be a case for exporting Faroese expertise to their nearest neighbour – Shetland?

“I have been advocating tunnels over the last eight to ten years,” says Shetland Island councillor Alastair Cooper. “I see it as the way to integrate communities and public services, such as education and health with the consequent savings this would bring.”

Relatively short tunnels would link Mainland with Yell and on to the northernmost island of Unst, with its new space centre development, alongside a potential short tunnel from Lerwick to Bressay. Cooper argues that, over and above the savings, tunnels would not be prone to bad weather, would not use expensive and dirty marine diesel fuel and, once built, would eliminate the cost of replacing ferries every 25 years or so.

An obvious possible financial route for tunnels might have been to dip into the islands’ generous accumulated oil royalties, but a political decision has been made to use the interest from these reserves to mitigate the effect of UK government cutbacks.

The counterarguments to tunnels include the protection of ferry jobs and the shielding of smaller island communities from the bright lights of Lerwick.

But Cooper says: “In the run-up to the last Scottish elections, Nicola Sturgeon was advocating tunnels to the islands and the UK government is putting levelling-up funds into Scotland, so I think there’s potential for a two-pronged attack to both the Scottish and UK governments. We have a duty to pursue both so as to get the groundwork done and build a solid business case.”

But the idea of simply importing Faroese expertise won’t quite hold water, laments Cooper. “Until someone starts tunnelling you can’t know the multitude of geological structures you may encounter. In Shetland these will include conglomerate and granite, whereas in the Faroes you are dealing with an absolute type of very hard rock.”