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Letters / Ferries: Less effective and more expensive

SHETLAND Island Council are once again choosing ferries for both Whalsay and Yell rather than following the spectacularly successful tunnel programmes of Norway and the Faeroes.

This is unfortunate for the majority of people of those islands since being able to drive, for free, at any time, in a few minutes on roads with a virtually unlimited carrying capacity would obviously be far preferable to having to wait for slow, intermittent and expensive ferries.

It is also unfortunate for everybody in Shetland who has to pay for it.

When the issue of the first ferry came up the council received a quote for £22 million. This is realistic, indeed somewhat above the normal Norwegian costs. In some unexplained manner this metamorphosed into £35 million – possibly the extra £13 million is simply the cost of the council watching it be done. This just happened to be slightly above the price then given for a new ferry.

After the ferry contract was signed a whole range of necessary but unnoticed costs appeared. Between 2001/02 and 2004/05, the net costs of providing the ferry services rose from £6.9m to £12.2m, an increase of 77 per cent over three years.

Over this period the principal cost increases were as follows:

  • Wages and salaries grew by 33 per cent to £6.687m;
  • Direct finance costs grew by 71 per cent to £1.846m;
  • Operating leases on new ships (SIC code 1209) increased from zero in 2001/02 to £1.5m in 2004/05.

The new Whalsay ferry is now priced at £53 million and again they have produced a tunnel cost slightly above that, but without bothering to get a firm quote this time.

If one includes all the costs from when the first tunnel proposal was made to 2032 it seems very unlikely the ratepayers are going to get away with as little as £300 million.

My interest in this is that I have studied the Norwegian and Faeroes 700 km tunnel programmes and proposed a much less ambitions programme for all of Scotland. proposed a scheme of easy road access to most islands off Scotland, including Man, Ireland, Islay, the Hebrides, Orkney and others  – easily within the capability Norway has shown. Shetland, 100km from Orkney would currently be a tunnel too far.

This was published by the Scotsman and put before our MSPs who may express an opinion some century soon.

The Norwegian tunnelling programme has been immensely successful, cutting tunnels at an average of under £5million per km (under half the cost the council’s £53million Whalsay estimate was based on). For example, the Laerdelstunnelen, at 24.5 km the world’s longest road tunnel, cost £119 million. This programme has been a significant factor in making Norway the 2nd richest sizeable country in the world (after Singapore).

By comparison total underwater distances between Mainland, Whalsay, Yell, Unst, Bressay and Fetlar are about 16km. I suspect that if asked to quote for the full range there would be economies of scale.

It is said that when there is a will to fail difficulties can always be found and this seems to have been shown when John Swinney assured Holyrood that a 3 km tunnel under the Forth, as an alternative to a bridge, would cost £6.6 billion, making it the most expensive in the world and 55 times more than the Laerdelstunnelen.

It is possible that there are some in Holyrood who have suggested to the SIC not to embarrass them with a tunnel success. This would explain the preference for the less effective and more expensive ferries.

I hope some reader of Shetland News will bring this to the attention of council employees so that they will be given the chance to explain any errors they believe I have made, or to say what geological or political differences between Shetland and Norway and the Faeroes, would massively change the costs.

Neil Craig
200 Woodlands Rd.

Norwegian tunnel list at http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/norwegian-tunnels.html
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