If the transport chiefs in Edinburgh were expecting a traditional island welcome for their plans to to tunnel their way to transport security on the isles, they must have been sadly disappointed by yesterday evening (Friday January 21)
Instead, they got a massive raspberry from the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee in response to their suggestion of a fixed link to the mainland from Mull.
And Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said: “Unsurprisingly, the reaction to these proposals from local people has been one of exasperation.
“This SNP Government has presided over the deterioration of our ferry service and roads for a decade and a half, but it now has the gall to tell us that if we wait for 20 years then we may have a wonderful network of new tunnels and bridges.
“What we really need is action from ministers to tackle the crisis facing island residents who don’t know from one day to the next whether they will be able to travel to the mainland due to ferry cancellations.
“And when they finally get to the mainland they are faced with the likelihood of diversions and delays because of landslips or patchwork repairs being made to the roads.
“By all means make plans for the long-term, but there is an urgent job to be done right now to fix the ferries and the roads.”
All this came after the Scottish Government published the second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2), setting out its blueprint for future transport investment.
STPR2 makes 45 recommendations under six key themes which seek to make transport in Scotland more sustainable and support people to make better, more informed choices on how they travel.
The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee surveyed islanders on Mull and Iona in 2019 on this topic, and the response was overwhelmingly negative – 60% disagreed with the proposal that ‘if it were possible, I’d like a tunnel from Mull to Oban’. Only 20% Agreed. (This from a survey with 672 responses from Mull and Iona, total population about 3,200. So a very big sample equivalent to about 35% of the adult population). So it would seem that people value their island identity.
"What they want is a reliable ferry service, one that is dependable in typical winter weather, and has space for everyone who wants to use it in the summer. These are the basic expectations of a lifeline ferry service, but at the moment they are not being met."
They also point out that a tunnel to Mull is by no means an easy task, and a glance at the map will tell you this.
"The most practical place to install a fixed link is across the sound of Mull to Morvern (where, interestingly, a tunnel from the Lochaline sand mine already travels most of the way to Mull). That would replace the small, dependable and frequent Lochaline-Fishnish ferry. However, there would still be a strong need to retain a ferry to Oban – in short, because Oban is our closest mainland town. It is our local service centre, where our children go to school and the shortest route to central Scotland.
"A bridge to Morvern would take us to one of the most isolated mainland peninsulas, with no significant town until Fort William after about another 1.5 hours drive on predominantly single-track roads. So it is difficult to imagine that the business case for a tunnel to Morvern would stack up, since there would be very few balancing cost savings in reduced ferry operations.
"The alternative tunnel – to Oban – would need to be about 8 miles long, which would make it the longest road tunnel in the UK by quite some margin – difficult to imagine that would be justified for an island of 3,200 people who at the moment show little desire for one."
In contrast, Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MSP Alasdair Allan saw advantaged for the outer isles. ""A fixed link to Mull would also have the potential for sailings from Barra to arrive in Mull, cutting time the time that vessels spend at sea."
And he welcomed confirmation from the Scottish Government that the potential for fixed links — bridges or tunnels — across the Sounds of Harris and Barra will be investigated.
“This is a very exciting development. Fixed links have the potential to be more cost-effective in the long run, as well as providing much easier and unencumbered access between islands.
“Given the strain on the ferries on the two Sounds, the potential for cancellations and the technical challenges associated with the routes, fixed links would provide a solution to what is a very real issue.
“The Western Isles is not about to become interlinked by road overnight, and we will have to wait to see feasibility studies and businesses cases brought forward. However, this is a very positive first step towards seeing fixed-links brought in.”