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An Irish Sea Tunnel is a hypothetical tunnel that would link Ireland to Britain across the Irish Sea. It has been suggested in the past largely for political reasons. It would be a railway tunnel, similar to the Channel Tunnel across the English Channel. Although the technical problems are by no means insurmountable, it is unlikely to be economically viable in the near future.


Possible routes

Irish Sea tunnels.gif

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[1].


North Channel (Kintyre) Route

This is the shortest route at around 19km (12mi), 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 on the Scottish side but to some extent also on the Irish side. If it ever were adopted it would mainly attract freight traffic; passenger traffic would mostly still use the ferries and planes[citation needed].

North Channel (Galloway) Route

This would mean tunnelling from somewhere around Portpatrick, to a location either just north or south of Belfast Lough.

This would result in a shorter length of tunnel than the southern routes (34km (21mi)), and one within the United Kingdom, though the Irish government and the European Union might reasonably be expected to contribute funds nevertheless. However because of Beaufort's Dyke this route would have to be deeper than the southern routes.

Travel to Belfast would benefit better from such a tunnel. The distance London-Belfast would be about 750 km, hard to go below 3½ hours with high-speed trains. Travel to Belfast (and Dublin) from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and most English cities is better suited.

The Dublin-Belfast-Glasgow-Edinburgh route would be possible. However the route between the two capitals London-Dublin is somewhat circuitous. If a high speed railway Dublin-Belfast (160 km) is also built, this route would take about 4–5 hours, making it hard to compete with planes.

Currently, Stranraer is only served by the Stranraer branch of the Glasgow South Western Line, which routes northeast towards Glasgow, and which is single track south of Ayr. With no changes to the network, trains bound for England would be have to be routed via Kilmarnock. It may be possible to re-open the former Portpatrick and Wigtownshire Railway to Dumfries via Newton Stewart and New Galloway. However, it is unclear whether this could be done easily, or if this line would be suitable for high speed trains. At Dumfries a connection could be made to the Glasgow South Western Main Line which in turn connects at Carlisle to the West Coast Main Line (for Manchester, Birmingham, London), the Settle-Carlisle Line (for Leeds) and the Tyne Valley Line (for Newcastle). Carlisle could also be connected to a future British High Speed Rail Network, though this connection might be made further south nearer to Manchester. The A77 road heads towards Glasgow, but is part single, part dual, carriageway. The A75 road leads towards Carlisle and M6 Motorway, but is mostly single carriageway. It may be better therefore to site the terminals somewhere along the M6 or M74 motorways — otherwise it may be necessary to upgrade these roads.

On the Irish side there are two possible sites for the portal, either side of Belfast Lough:

The County Antrim option would connect to the Belfast-Larne railway line and the Dublin-Belfast railway line via Belfast Central station. The County Down option would connect to the Belfast-Bangor railway line, which is connected to the Belfast Central station. Both the Belfast-Larne railway line and the Belfast-Bangor railway line are primarily commuter lines however and may not be suitable for conversion. A Belfast-Dublin LGV would be useful in quickening journey times.

Irish Mail Route

Another option is to follow the traditional route of the Irish Mail steamers from North Wales (Holyhead) to Dublin (Dun Laoghaire). The tunnel length would be about 100 km (60 miles). The main London-Dublin route is more direct and high speed trains would be competitive with airlines. Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham are also available to be served. The distance London-Dublin would be about 550 km, needing about 2½ hours on high-speed trains. This time is very competitive with air travel, although the trains would have to compete on prices with budget airlines.

The British portal of this route would connect to the North Wales Coast Line around Anglesey. The North Wales Coast Line connects North Wales to Crewe (and the West Coast Main Line) via Chester. For most of its length it runs along the North Wales Coast, following the A55 road. The transport corridor is constrained by mountains to the south and by several seaside resort towns.

Increased traffic would mean that capacity along the transport corridor would have to be increased. Essentially there are two options for the location of the terminals:

  • A terminal in Wales near the tunnel portal, with the A55 being widened to motorway standard.
  • A terminal in England near the M6 motorway, with rebuilt large loading gauge railway between tunnel portal and terminal.

There are no major population centres along this route (for this reason there have been no container trains from Holyhead Port for some years) and therefore most traffic will be between Ireland and England. An English terminal would have environmental benefits as rail is more environmentally friendly than road. However, a Welsh terminal would bring development opportunities for North Wales. Either option would probably require a dedicated high speed railway line anyway.

Most of the route between Crewe and Llandudno Junction is flat along the coast and this would be easy to rebuild. However, further west there are some issues. At Conwy the line skirts Conwy Castle before crossing the River Conwy on the Conwy Bridge and would probably have to be tunneled under (this would also make grade separation at Llandudno Junction easier).

From Bangor, the line rises from just above sea level and runs through tunnels before turning sharply and crossing the Menai Strait via the single-tracked Britannia Bridge, 100 feet above the strait. Even if some trains were diverted by reopening the line to Caernarfon, a new crossing of the Menai Strait would probably be required. This could be in tunnel too.

Presently, Holyhead-Liverpool trains travel via a circuitous route from Chester to reach Liverpool. The Wirral Line offers a more direct route via the Wirral Peninsula but is a commuter line and would be unsuited to very high speed trains. The Borderlands Line crosses the North Wales Coast Line at Shotton station, but this terminates on the Wirral and does not reach Liverpool; current plans see it being integrated into the Wirral Line. A new line running in tunnel under the Dee Estuary, across the Wirral (probably partially in tunnel) and in tunnel under the River Mersey to connect to Liverpool Lime Street would cut journey times. This could be a possible phase 2 project delivered after the main works.

Tuskar Route

The Institute of Engineers of Ireland's 2004 "Vision of Transport in Ireland in 2050" calls for a tunnel to be built between the ports of Fishguard and Rosslare[1]. This has primarily a main grand vision of a new container port in the Shannon Estuary, linked freight line to Europe.

This report also includes ideas for a Belfast-Dublin-Cork LGV, and for a new freight line from Rosslare to Shannon.

Though London-Dublin and London-Belfast routes would be possible, routes from Birmingham, North West England, Leeds, to Belfast via Dublin between Newcastle and Scotland to Dublin would probably not be competitive.

On the British side, a high speed line duplicating the Great Western Main Line has been proposed[2][3][4]. This however is likely to be less of a 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 has 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. Terminals however 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

The first suggestion of linking Britain to Ireland is in 1897,[5] 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 facilitated faster transatlantic travel from Britain, via Galway and other Irish ports.

Sixty years later Harford Hyde, Unionist MP for North Belfast, called for the building of such a tunnel.[6]

Although their economies have always been closely linked, in 1973 the United Kingdom and the Ireland both joined the European Union, which brought their economies closer to the rest of Europe. In 1993 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).[7][8][9][10]. It has not been mentioned in the British parliament.

Economics and politics

Half the air traffic at Dublin Airport is to Britain, with 8,300,000 passengers per annum. The Dublin-London air route is the busiest international connection in the European Union and the second busiest in the world, with about 50 daily flights and 4.5 million passengers per annum[citation needed], and there were about 12.3 million air passengers between the republic and the United Kingdom (2007) [11].

The Channel Tunnel has, at least initially, failed to generate the original passenger numbers expected (partially because of low cost airlines). It nowadays however has about 9 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 a funding problem, that a tunnel, since it is an all-or-nothing project, cannot be built and funded in stages. Therefore cost over-runs (such as experienced on the Channel Tunnel) cannot be smoothed over time. Construction would also take a long time to complete. The project would therefore be an expensive long-term high risk investment.

It might be reasonably expected that opposition to the tunnel would come from powerful corporate interests, particularly ferry companies, shipping lines and airlines. NIMBY local interest groups and environmental groups may oppose individual infrastructure changes.

Various Irish government studies have therefore concluded that an Irish Sea tunnel is, as yet, economically infeasible. The benefit compared to air and ferry travel does not justify the cost.

Change of gauge

One of the major issues for an Irish Sea Tunnel would be the break of gauge between the 1,435 mm standard gauge and the 1,600 mm Irish broad gauge. This is an issue especially for freight trains, whereas for passenger trains the passengers would probably change trains at a major railway station (Dublin, or Belfast; whichever is closest to the tunnel portal).

For onward freight services, the gauge difference would have to be overcome either by building new standard gauge lines in Ireland, regauging the existing network to standard gauge, the use of variable gauge axles, or by the use of dual gauge. Variable gauge axles are only economical as an alternative to regauging or building long new sections of track.

The difference in width between standard gauge and Irish gauge is too small to allow high speed operation on a three-rail dual gauge setup meaning that a four-rail dual gauge installation is required. The states of Victoria and South Australia Australia also shares breaks of gauge between 1,435 mm and 1,600 mm.

Trains passing through the long tunnel must use electric traction, meaning that the railways at either end must also be electrically operated. However, as of 2008, most railway lines in Ireland are not electrified.

See also


  1. ^ A Vision of Transport in Ireland in 2050, IEI report (pdf), The Irish Academy of Engineers, 21/12/2004
  2. ^ First Great Western: trains, tickets, timetables for London, Bristol, Cardiff, West of England
  3. ^ BBC NEWS | England | Rail firm considers 200mph trains
  4. ^ BBC NEWS | Wales | Cardiff to London in just over an hour
  5. ^ "TUNNEL UNDER THE SEA", The Washington Post, May 2, 1897 (Archive link)
  6. ^ "An Irishman's Diary" by Wesley Boyd, (Link), The Irish Times, Feb 2004 (subscription required)
  7. ^ Written Answers. - Sea Transport, (Link), Dáil Éireann - Volume 384 - 16 November, 1988
  8. ^ Written Answers. - Irish Sea Railway Ferry, (Link), Dáil Éireann - Volume 434 - 19 October, 1993
  9. ^ Written Answers. - Ireland-UK Tunnel, (Link), Dáil Éireann - Volume 517 - 29 March, 2000
  10. ^ Written Answers - Transport Projects, (Link), Dáil Éireann - Volume 597 - 15 February, 2005
  11. ^ Eurostat: Air passenger transport in Europe in 2007


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