PROPOSAL FOR A NORTH LINK
High Speed Rail Link Dublin / Belfast / Glasgow
This brief document sets out a proposal for a High Speed (HS) rail link connecting the cities of Dublin, Belfast and Glasgow, utilising an 18km tunnel under the North Channel. It is assumed that this link would connect to the eventual HS line that will service Glasgow from London. This document is not a business case, but only introduces the topic at this point to see if the involved Governments have any interest in pursuing a funding stream that could be used for a feasibility study.
Such a project has been discussed since the 19th Century. In 1890 , a Victorian engineer - Luke Livingston Macassey (1843–1908) - had plans to build what would then have been the world’s longest rail tunnel under the Irish Sea, from Scotland to Northern Ireland. One of the options considered would have linked North Antrim and the Mull of Kintyre, which – would then have required a new railway of more than 100 miles to link the tunnel mouth with the West Highland Line at Arrochar. In 2004, interests in the Republic of Ireland considered the so-called Tuskar Project, which would have linked Wexford to Fishguard by a 60 km undersea tunnel, which would be twice the length of the Channel Tunnel. Other options to cross the North Channel have been proposed, but the Argyll / Antrim North Link option tends to be discounted due to ‘transport links to be cut through mountainous terrain’ (BBC News 14 August 2013). The route proposed in this brief document does not involve ‘mountainous terrain’ and is why a feasibility study is needed to put this in perspective.
There are a number of reasons to commit to such a feasibility study at this point:
- Investment in sustainable infrastructure such as rail is coming back on the agenda after the financial problems from 2008 onwards.
- The recent opening of the Borders Railway in Scotland has once again demonstrated that such an infrastructure project generates economic benefit along the whole route.
- Within Europe, there are plans to connect all capital cities with HS links. There is one glaring omission – the link from Glasgow to Belfast to Dublin.
- In Europe, large rail projects are seen as vital for economic development. For example, the Gotthard Basis tunnel in Switzerland is 57 kms long and will reduce the journey time from Zurich from Milan by something around 90 minutes; yet, the huge expense is justified by the economic benefit that is anticipated.
- In the proposed North Link, the largest overland construction element in Scotland would be in the county of Argyll & Bute. This county is receiving much Government and other agency focus at the moment due to challenging forecasts for future economic performance. This link would dramatically improve these predictions.
What would be involved?
- Tunnel / bridge connections from the Scottish Central Belt to Cowal in Argyll & Bute – there are multiple options for this route which have been developed by the Cowal Fixed Link Working Group. See below.
- A rail link from Cowal through Glen Lean, a 1 - 2 km bridge over Loch Fyne near Asknish and a further rail link mostly parallel to the A83 to Rubha Chlachan in Kintyre. This route would also run close to the Machrihanish / Campbeltown airport, which is apparently being considered a future spaceport.
- An 18 km rail tunnel (of which there are more than 20 in Europe) from Rubha Chlachan to Torr Head in Antrim
- A rail link from Torr Head to connect to the existing Northern Ireland rail network around Coleraine
- Upgrading to HS standard of the existing lines in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the Glasgow / Central Belt section in Scotland.
- In Argyll, spur lines to create rail heads at Dunoon, Lochgilphead and Campbeltown.
Initial Economic Benefit
Using TGV type speeds:
- Dublin to Belfast is 166 km - a journey time of under 30 minutes
- Belfast to Glasgow is 289 km - a journey time of around 75 minutes.
With an HS link to Glasgow southwards to London, the overall journey time from Dublin to London could be in the region of 4 hours. Recent data indicates that the Dublin / London air route is the busiest international route in Europe with over 4.5 million passengers annually. City Centre to City Centre travel times by air are over 5 hours. Note that the Dublin / London travel time by the Tuskar route mentioned earlier would have been in excess of 4 hours because of the absence of an HS link from Fishguard to London.
Scottish Central Belt Links
The website for the Cowal Fixed Link can be found: www.cowalfixedlink.scot
This proposal is for a HS rail link. However, road traffic would need to be accommodated. This would be achieved by using Euroshuttle type trains to carry vehicular traffic. The boarding point on the Scottish side is proposed to be located near Eurocentral, with proximity to M73, M74 and M8 and also to the rail network. On the Irish side, the suggested location is near the town of Antrim close to the M2 and Belfast Airport.
Such centres of loading / unloading would be expected to become major economic hubs.
Why Argyll / Antrim
At the time of writing, there are suggestions that the North Channel be crossed by a road / rail bridge / tunnel from Portpatrick, Wigtownshire in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. It is assumed that a bridge for either option is not a consideration, principally due to North Channel weather. These are some reason why the Argyll / Antrim link should be considered:
- The undersea portion of the Argyll / Antrim link is 18 km as against 35 km for the alternative.
- The Portpatrick link has to contend with the Beaufort’s Dyke – an undersea trench off the coast of Wigtownshire. Beaufort's Dyke is a natural trench between Northern Ireland and Scotland within the North Channel. The dyke is 50 km long, 3.5 km wide and 200–300 m deep. It is also filled with discarded military munitions from over 50 years, including radio-active and highly explosive materials.
- The Scottish rail infrastructure needed to service a Portpatrick link would involve approximately 110 miles of new rail to connect to the existing rail lines north of Carlisle. This contrasts with 120 miles of new rail to link Rubha Chlachan to the existing rail network west of Glasgow.
- Due to the differing rail gauge between GB and Northern Ireland, all rail infrastructure on the Northern Ireland side would be new and would be approximately equivalent with both options.
- The Argyll / Antrim link would bring Glasgow into the equation. This would significantly strengthen existing economic ties between the Island of Ireland and Glasgow. A new Glasgow International Rail Station could be constructed in the South side of Glasgow and a link over existing disused rail lines via High Street could be the long discussed Glasgow Cross Rail, connecting Glasgow Queen Street and Glasgow Central networks.
- Perhaps the overriding reason to make any investment in a North Channel link will be to reduce CO2 emissions and contribute to solving the climate emergency. Either option will, by using rail and Euroshuttle type trains, achieve a contribution this regard. However, the Argyll / Antrim link would make the maximum contribution and could, for example, remove 5 million short haul air journeys annually. This would be achieved by proving a faster link via rail from both Dublin and Belfast to all major cities England and Scotland.
- The economic benefit of an Argyll / Antrim link in the West of Scotland will be significant. This is an area of the country that desperately needs such investment.