A PROPOSAL to build a tunnel between Whalsay and the Shetland mainland could only be considered on a national level and be led by the government, a new report has reaffirmed.
The study on building a tunnel to the island, commissioned by the isles’ transport partnership ZetTrans, ruled that it is “not feasible” that Shetland Islands Council (SIC) or ZetTrans could fund a project of this scale in the foreseeable future – “nor do they have the technical and procurement expertise to ‘buy’ and deliver the project”.
The Whalsay Fixed Link Paper was prepared by Peter Brett Associates to provide an update on the issue while the SIC continues to develop a more general outline business case on transport links to Whalsay alongside overarching studies into its ferry network and inter-island air travel.
A suggestion, meanwhile, to build a new ferry terminal at Bonydale on the far east of the Shetland mainland – cutting the journey to Whalsay from half an hour to around ten minutes – is understood to have been a popular option for locals responding to a council consultation.
It has been a long held view that the council simply cannot afford to take on projects like building tunnels, with hopes that the Scottish Government would provide finance if a link ever came to fruition.
The new paper says that as part of the SIC’s input into the government’s latest strategic review of transport projects, it could “make the case” for fixed links for the islands of Whalsay, Unst, Yell and Bressay.
The long-standing issue of fixed links reared its head again recently, with Shetland MSP Tavish Scott warning that funding from the government was unlikely to happen “anytime soon”.
The new report attempts to follow on from 2016’s Shetland Inter Island Transport Study as it seeks to clarify the costs of a fixed link to Whalsay after representation from the island’s community council.
The community repeatedly asked SIC officials to consider a £76 million quote from Norwegian contractor Tunnel & Geoconsult AS for a tunnel to Whalsay made a few years ago, but the new report says it is “our understanding is that this is a preliminary offer and there is limited detail on how such a structure would be delivered for this cost”.
It adds that “there are significant reservations over the robustness of this quotation and it is also unclear whether suitable contingency and optimism bias have been applied to the figures.”
But Whalsay councillor Duncan Simpson, who said he has yet to review the final report in full detail and is due to meet SIC officers soon with other North Isles members to discuss the paper, said that contingency – financial wriggle room built into large scale plans – was in fact part of the £76 million quote.
“This makes me wonder if the Geoconsult quotation has been properly reviewed,” he said.
The study says that based on figures provide to Donaldson’s Associates in 2016, a tunnel to Whalsay would cost around £143 million – £52 million more expensive than keeping ferries running, replacing the Linga and Hendra vessels twice over the next 30 years and carrying out harbour works.
The report adds: “The cost of a fixed link would significantly exceed the costs associated with ongoing ferry services, even when considered over two ferry replacement cycles (outwith the £76 million Geoconsult preliminary offer, which is significantly out-of-step with ballpark prices provided by other contractors with a proven track record in tunnelling).”
It continues to say that a Whalsay tunnel would also face competition with other fixed links proposals within Shetland and across Scotland for any available funding, and that before construction there would be a “costly and extended period of technical development and preparation”, which would add extra costs.
Simpson said he was concerned that the study places priority on ferries at a time when the SIC came £2.7 million short of its full £7.9 million request to the Scottish Government for running its inter-island ferries.
“My main concern about the whole thing, however, is they seem to be classing fixed links as unaffordable but ferries as affordable,” the councillor said.
“The Scottish Government’s failure to provide funding for our current ferries has been well publicised and now ferry cuts are being openly discussed. Without this problem being solved no option is affordable.
“My great fear is that we end up with a new ferry but a worse service, all but ensuring a slow and painful death for the island.”
The report, meanwhile, says that while a fixed link to the Bonnie Isle would “undoubtedly generate benefits for those travelling between Whalsay and the mainland in the form of shorter and potentially more reliable journey times”, the benefits would generally be for a “relatively small group of people”.
“This would be in contrast to other schemes which could be progressed across Shetland (transport and non-transport) for which the benefits would be much more evenly spread across more of the population and economy,” it adds.
“In addition, Whalsay ranks amongst Scotland’s less deprived areas according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.”
With fixed links for Whalsay, Unst, Yell and Bressay estimated to cost a combined £428 million to £537 million – around double the council’s useable reserves – “if a fixed link was to be progressed for Whalsay, there would need to be a clear and evidence-based justification as to why that island was being progressed ahead of the other islands,” the paper added.
Chairman of the SIC’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson, who is also a councillor for the North Isles, said it is the local authority’s policy to “support the development of fixed links where they are viable”.
“The findings in this report by Peter Brett Associates is clear and has confirmed what we have known for some time – it is not feasible for the SIC or ZetTrans to fund or undertake a project of this scale,” he added.
“The SIC will continue to engage with the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland in putting the case forward for fixed links, which without doubt is the future for our islands. The socioeconomic benefits of fixed links are clear, and the benefit to islanders and communities substantial.
“It is clear, however, there are real and significant challenges to inter-island transport, particularly in Whalsay, that need addressed immediately, something that has been strongly stipulated both to me personally by members of the community, and in the communities’ response to the public consultation.
“The outline business case for Whalsay continues, and the council will have the chance to have input into the National Transport Strategy in 2019.”
When making a case to the government, the community and the SIC would have to demonstrate that the current ferry service is not meeting the needs of the islands, and that in the long-term a fixed link is the most appropriate way of remedying the problems or realising the opportunities.
In 2016 then Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf agreed to look into integrating fixed links into national policy – something which was described as a “huge step forward” for Shetland’s transport planning.