A SEVEN kilometre tunnel to Whalsay would cost at least between £70 or £80 million, it has emerged after two days of talks with tunnelling experts in Glasgow.
Five councillors and two senior officials from Shetland Islands Council have spent a day and a half shut in a room with three Norwegian tunnel experts from Norway and UK tunnel consultant Andy Sloan comparing tunnel building in the two countries.
The group were establishing why one Norwegian company could price the Whalsay job at around £35 million, while Professor Sloan estimated a figure more than three times greater.
Last night (Tuesday) Shetland’s head of transport Michael Craigie said that the discussions had delivered a rough estimate of £11,000 per metre for a tunnel, which would mean a final cost of £79.2 million.
This compares to a bill of £26 million for one new ferry and three new ferry terminals at Laxo, Vidlin and North Voe to serve the community of Whalsay.
The island has been torn by different factions arguing over the island’s future transport link, with a majority wanting a ferry terminal at North Voe and others wanting the existing terminal at Symbister to be upgraded.
Last month the council deferred a decision after a Norwegian firm said it could build a tunnel for around £35 million, choosing to carry out a detailed study into the real cost of a fixed link in Shetland.
The three Norwegian experts, including the vice president of the International Tunnel Association, Eivind Grov, will be in Shetland later this month when the council will convene a special meeting of its infrastructure committee to decide on the way forward for Whalsay’s transport links.
Mr Craigie said: “We have had a good day and a half and achieved a better, shared understanding of the difference between tunnelling in Norway and tunnelling in Shetland.
“We know what can be achieved in Norway and this was about trying to understand what can be done in Shetland in terms of cost and delivering the project. It’s been a useful day and a half.”
He said everyone had agreed the “lower end” of the cost would be £10,000 to £11,000 per metre. “We agreed that would be a reasonable figure to use to contribute towards making a decision on a fixed link for Whalsay.”
The transport department will now prepare a report on the relative cost to the council of a ferry link and a tunnel over a 120 year period. “We normally use a 60 year time frame, but we will go up to 120 years just to show what that means. The report will be very detailed and full of good quality information,” Mr Craigie said.
Councillor Alastair Cooper, one of the five councillors in Glasgow this week, had called for the tunnel study after raising concerns about the long term cost of ferries in the face of government budget cuts following the global financial crisis.
The other question is the speed at which a tunnel could be prepared and built, with engineers saying Whalsay’s existing ferry link has just five years left before it becomes unsafe.