Monday 11 November 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Copying Johnson's jape is a bridge too far, Leo'

A bridge to Scotland and a high-speed rail line to Belfast are both ridiculous ideas, writes Colm McCarthy

'Varadkar found Johnson very personable, intelligent and easy to deal with.'
'Varadkar found Johnson very personable, intelligent and easy to deal with.'
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

George Orwell cannot be accused of sparing his fellow countrymen. He could have been writing about contemporary events back in 1941 when he foresaw that "the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time".

He went on to link this insularity with "...the lack of philosophical faculty, the absence in nearly all Englishmen of any need for an ordered system of thought or even for the use of logic".

Boris Johnson is Orwell's stylised Englishman made flesh, complete with a plan to address the insularity problem. He has committed publicly to the construction of two mammoth bridges, one to France and another to Ireland.

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The bridge to France would supplement the Channel Tunnel and extensive ferry services already available to facilitate whatever traffic survives Johnson's other cunning scheme, Britain's departure from both the customs union and the single market.

A mock-up of how a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland might look. Boris Johnson has suggested such a plan in the past and now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the project should be examined
A mock-up of how a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland might look. Boris Johnson has suggested such a plan in the past and now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the project should be examined

This bonzer wheeze was first revealed when Johnson was foreign secretary at a meeting between Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron in January 2018.

Macron offered to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain and May had prepared a gracious acceptance, furnishing the newshounds with instant headline material. Up steps Johnson with his (naturally uncosted) 40km bridge, the longest in Europe by far, and bang goes Macron's headline. Nothing more has been heard of the bridge to France.

Dissuading ministers from public commitments to half-baked capital projects is one of the high bureaucratic arts. In the 1980s, the Channel Tunnel linking England to France across the Straits of Dover was under construction. It eventually cost double the initial estimate, bankrupting the shareholders and delivering painful haircuts to bank lenders.

Prior to this familiar outcome, an Irish minister mused to his officials that a link across the Irish Sea at the narrowest point might cost no more than the optimistic figure then touted for the tunnel. The officials whipped out a map and were able to end the minister's daydreams with the simple observation that the shortest point was in Norn Iron. It still is, but some daydreams never die.

One of the unexpected costs of Brexit could turn out to be an interview given by the Taoiseach to the Irish edition of the Sunday Times last weekend, in which he endorsed Boris Bridge II, a link between Scotland and Northern Ireland, appearing even to contemplate a contribution from the Republic's accumulated riches.

This is the very project which the Irish Sir Humphreys had expertly nixed 40 years earlier, when the Republic's capital budget could be misapplied only within the jurisdiction.

A bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland is an insane proposal, not because it is technically unfeasible but because it could cost large multiples of the initial estimate (Johnson sportingly offered, off the top of his uncombed head, a figure of £15bn). There is no design, hence no meaningful estimate is feasible.

The problem is that there is only modest traffic, 12 sailings a day from Cairnryan in Scotland to Belfast and Larne combined, compared with 64 trips on Eurotunnel and about 70 more in ferry sailings from Dover and the other English Channel ports.

The bridge in the north Irish Sea would cost at least as much as an extra English Channel crossing for a market less than one-10th the size. London and Paris are the two largest cities in western Europe, Belfast and (faraway) Glasgow are provincial cities by comparison.

Boris Bridge II could even cost more than Boris Bridge I, because of the little matter of the Beaufort Dyke. The sea is only 45 metres deep between Dover and Calais (the channel is really a slice of Kent that became flooded about 6,000 years ago). Between Co Antrim and Ayrshire, the depth ranges up to 300 metres, adding substantial construction cost. This unusual depth inspired the British army to choose the Beaufort Dyke as a safe home for a million tonnes of explosives at the end of World War II. The soldiers were naively confident nobody would be daft enough to contemplate the Dyke as a bridge route.

The Taoiseach concluded his endorsement of the project as follows: "I know people dismiss it, but I don't. It needs to be looked at, it needs to be at least examined."

Since there is no design, no cost estimate and no prospect of significant traffic, even the most proficient Dublin cost-benefit practitioners would struggle to manufacture a thumbs-up for this one.

Finding yet further outlets for the capital budget, the Taoiseach went on to endorse another Northern Ireland mega-project for which Prime Minister Johnson cannot be blamed.

"I would love to see a high-speed train link between Dublin and Belfast, cities that are very close to each other but don't work together enough," he said.

There is now plentiful experience around Europe of high-speed rail projects, both as to costs and benefits, and the economic issues have been explored in some detail. The results are not helpful to the Taoiseach's proposal.

A high-speed rail line is a new right of way, straight enough to accommodate speeds of up to 300kmh.

It is not possible to superimpose the high-speed technology on an inherited line bequeathed by Queen Victoria and her contemporaries.

To build a line from Dublin to Belfast would require a brand new routing through the northern suburbs of Dublin, around the intervening towns and then through the southern suburbs of Belfast with new termini in both cities.

The Republic and Northern Ireland have been struggling for 15 years to finalise planning consent for a new electricity connection which goes entirely through open country. Not a single pylon has been erected and this planning failure relates to a far simpler project.

The cost of the proposed HS2 line from London to Manchester - about twice the distance from Dublin to Belfast - has risen to £86bn (€99.5bn), suggesting around £43bn for the Taoiseach's project, or around €50bn. To give you an idea of what this large number means, it equals about 25 National Children's Hospitals or 50 Bertie Bowls.

It would deliver passengers to Belfast in about 45 minutes, unless it continued to serve all the towns in between, in which case it would not be a high-speed rail line.

There are two other problems aside from the cost. The first is the short distance - studies show that high-speed rail is most competitive at far greater distances, three times of that between Dublin and Belfast.

There is already a decent rail service between the two cities which does not attract significant patronage, as well as a motorway. European studies have concluded that end-to-end passenger volumes up to 10 million a year are required to justify the enormous capital and operating costs of high-speed rail and that only a handful of the lines already constructed come close to these numbers.

End-to-end volume on Dublin-Belfast, which offers eight departures per weekday and trip duration of about two hours and 15 minutes, is only about 200,000. Only about 80 passengers on each train departing north from Dublin stay aboard to Belfast.

This is an even worse project than either of Boris's bridges.

Sunday Independent

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