Union Connectivity Review: A short follow-up submission on the Irish Sea fixed link

16 March, 2021

This submission has been made to the Union Connectivity Review following publication of the Interim Report in March 2021. It focusses on just one of the areas of interest for the Commission – the Irish Sea fixed link.

Overview

There are three good reasons to consider the idea of a fixed link across the Irish Sea seriously:

  • It could give the Northern Ireland economy a major boost
  • It could help decarbonise the UK’s transport system
  • It could create new capital city inter-connections: Edinburgh-Glasgow-Belfast-Dublin (as well as London & Cardiff-Belfast).

We note that, understandably, the Interim Report says little on the fixed link pending the outcome of the feasibility study that is now getting underway. But we believe the Review needs to do more on the subject.

Realism needed on two fronts

Scepticism around the fixed link idea comes from two major concerns. The first is its feasibility. This is to be addressed in the engineering feasibility study you have commissioned from Professors Douglas Oakervee and Gordon Masterton. The costs of a fixed link between SW Scotland and Northern Ireland will no doubt be covered in the Professors’ feasibility report.

Our concern is that the question of the economic case for such a link may be left open unless some preliminary work is done on benefits. This would hopefully answer a second common concern that Northern Ireland is too small to be worth the substantial capital cost of a fixed link. Our point is that the economic gains could be substantial too.

Assessing economic benefits

We note the reference to the recent National Infrastructure Commission’s work on the Rail Needs of the North. We concur with the view that it would be appropriate for the UCR to take a similar assessment approach, avoiding cost benefit ratios for similar reasons to those given by the NIC in its work. But this does mean identifying instead specific economic and other gains from transport investment, in this case from increased trade and better connectivity to/from Northern Ireland.

The current costs of trade for businesses in Northern Ireland when looking at wider markets and supply chains are high because of its island location. The prospects for reducing these costs should be a key focus of the analysis in the Union Connectivity Review going forward. One approach could be to seek to identify how much higher they are than for businesses located in (say) northern England.

In our December submission we pointed towards the most helpful evidence we are aware of on this subject. This was developed by Lord Cockfield in 1985, helping to make the case for the European Commission to progress the Single Market (at the time, a key plank of UK Government policy). His work showed that removing tariffs and border controls improves GDP by around 2%, but this is not the only beneficial economic effect. Simply creating larger markets, even with tariffs remaining, he found, would lead to a separate but similar uplift in GDP for those nations or regions that become open to new trading opportunities.

A fixed link across the Irish Sea could, we suggest, have an effect of this scale, provided its functional capability addresses the broad catchment in Great Britain and covers both person travel and freight. At current Northern Ireland output levels, an economic gain of around £1bn annually to the Northern Irish economy alone would be achieved.

We would urge the Commission to take a look at this question and come to a view on the likely scale of impact.

An isolated fixed link is unworkable

Just as was found when the Channel Tunnel (Eurotunnel) was built, a cross-channel tunnel is unworkable in isolation. Kent needed the completion of the M2 and M20 motorways and the construction of the channel tunnel rail link (HS1) for it to work properly. In today’s decarbonising world, it would surely be necessary to make a new cross-channel (Irish Sea) crossing work without building new motorways.

As we suggested in our original submission, a new electrified railway line is needed (between Stranraer and Carlisle) to feed a tunnelled rail link across the Irish Sea. As well as through freight trains and fast passenger services, this could be used to provide an extended Euro-shuttle style operation, allowing HGVs and cars to transit under the Irish Sea and continue across south west Scotland. A terminal would be provided where the rail line meets the M6/A74(M). South West Scotland could be similarly spared the ravages of increased traffic levels. An implication to note is that any such cross-Galloway rail line would need to be built to accommodate the larger (European) loading gauge. Its virtue is that it takes away the need for a 100-mile stretch of motorway across Dumfries & Galloway and opens the possibility of both faster transit times and significant carbon reduction.

Piggy-back operations such as these are common today across Switzerland to cut HGV traffic. While Switzerland does not mandate piggy-back for freight, they do apply a toll for HGVs of about 80p per truck-km plus the cost of a vignette, which is designed to encourage use of the piggy-back routes and cut the volume of cross-Alpine HGVs.

Of further relevance to the UCR is that the Swiss tolling system also automatically monitors trucks as they cross Switzerland to ensure that goods are not imported without customs declarations being made (the country is not in the EU Customs Union). This would be relevant for transit traffic from Ireland crossing the UK.

If the fixed link is also to provide an attractive alternative to flying between Northern Ireland and English & Scottish airports, then fast rail onward connections are needed. One aim would be a sub-4 hour rail journey time between London and Belfast. This is only achievable if work proceeds to speed up the Crewe-Carlisle section of the West Coast Main Line through northern England, which might well happen in pursuit of 3 hour journey times London-Glasgow/Edinburgh. So this too is a pre-requisite for success, just like the cross-Galloway rail line.

A new cross-Galloway rail link would be very unlikely to follow the route of the abandoned ‘Port Road’ railway, which served the few intermediate travel markets poorly. But it should be able to support, in addition to non-stopping long distance services, enhanced rail connectivity locally, for Dumfries, Dalbeattie, Kirkudbright, Newton Stewart and Stranraer.

We recognise that further work is likely to follow on the West Coast Main Line and improving Anglo-Scottish rail connectivity, noting that the Prime Minister wrote as follows in The Telegraph on March 10th:

“why are we stopping HS2 in England? We don’t need a new line; with some bypasses, better track and signalling, as Sir Peter [Hendy] believes, we could run services from Glasgow to London in about 3 hours and carry more freight too.”

The case for such investment may well be determined without any reference to the possible add-on opportunity to accommodate Northern Ireland traffics (or serve SW Scotland better). But it would be helpful, we suggest, if the Commission was to examine the case for a staged programme, in which it is recognised that the full potential of a fixed link across the Irish Sea will remain unrealised without investment in the WCML corridor north of Crewe.

Wider Connectivity Ambitions

Another aim, given a fixed link, we suggest, would be the creation of a sub 3-hour rail connection between Edinburgh and Belfast. Transport Scotland would be best placed to examine the various options to achieve this, along with a good connection for Glasgow too.

We were pleased to see that your Interim Report pointed to the need to look as well at better connectivity for Northern Ireland’s border regions and along the Belfast-Dublin axis (for which there is an agreed cross-Governmental examination getting underway).

The value of a Dublin-Belfast-Glasgow-Edinburgh service could be substantial. And we were pleased to see that it appears that the virtue of creating direct links between Cardiff and Edinburgh were picked up in your Interim Report.

Conclusion

The feasibility study for the fixed link being prepared by Professors Oakervee and Masterton will likely provide a preliminary cost estimate. In the absence of a parallel examination of the rational for such a facility, backed up by some preliminary estimates of economic, social and environmental consequences, it will be difficult to know what recommendation can be made: whether it is worth studying any further and if so what the next steps should be.

The UK is notoriously weak at strategic planning. Alongside the economic aims (implicit in the discussion above of better connectivity and increased trade), is the fundamental need to decarbonise the national transport system. This is not going to happen, we suggest, unless travel by electrified rail becomes an attractive option along at least national-level core corridors – for passengers and for freight. Here is a chance to provide a customer-led reduction in carbon-intensive short haul flights, in long distance HGV movements and in lengthy cross-border car travel.

The Union Connectivity Review is providing leadership: as we noted in our December submission, there is plenty of evidence that improving connections across the 4-nations’ boundaries has suffered from benign neglect, typically falling outside regionally-based and devolved Government plans, and sometimes argued to be ‘beyond scope’ by DfT (for example completing electrification of the Paddington-Swansea line within Wales). Cross-border connections we suspect will only see improvements in practice if there is both leadership on the matter and a collaborative effort from the parties involved.

Ultimately there are shared interests here as reflected in Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity Michael Matheson’s observation in The Independent of 10th March: “It is in my interest to have good transport connectivity with other parts of the UK.”

Greengauge 21

March 2021