Fix Rest and Be Thankful over ‘crazy’ island tunnels, says Argyll’s ex-road chief

Tunnel vision: the Scottish Government wants to replace ferry services to Mull, Harris and Barra with tunnels or bridges. However, locals on both sides of the Firth of Lorn fail to see light at the end. Image by Joe Reade, chair of Mull & Iona Ferry Committee.

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There’s no light at the end of a tunnel to Mull, the island’s ferry group says, slamming a Scottish Government plan to build tunnels or bridges from Oban to Craignure and across the Sounds of Harris and Barra.

Instead of the SNP’s ‘grandiose distraction’, Mull and Iona Ferry Committee wants existing ferry services improved. ‘The house is burning down and we are shouting urgently for someone to do something,’ they said, ‘and the response from Edinburgh is “look at this shiny fire engine that we’ll have in 20 years”.’

The comments were echoed over the Firth of Lorn by Oban councillor Roddy McCuish, Argyll and Bute Council’s former policy lead for roads, who called the proposal ‘as crazy as the Prime Minister’s idea of a tunnel to Ireland’. ‘If we are bidding for city status, we have to get the basics right,’ he said.

This month, Holyrood’s Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) announced feasibility studies into ‘fixed links’ (bridges or tunnels) across the Sounds of Harris and Barra, and between Craignure and Oban, to ‘improve reliability, connectivity, capacity and crossing times’.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil said: ‘We must catch up with people like the Faroese who have been linking the islands, over lengths of 10km, at about £10 million per km to construct. Over 25 years this is very doable and affordable. This could revolutionise transport on the islands.

‘The tunnel link to Mull would obviously benefit Mull, but also Coll and Tiree, and could make Tobermory the port in the south end of the west coast.’

However councillor McCuish, a member of the Independence For Scotland Party, said: ‘It is a daft idea, as our infrastructure is falling to bits. The school estate is crumbling, social care is a shambles.

‘The Scottish Government has imposed budget cuts on local authorities for years, no matter how they try to dress it up. I would rather they spend the money on getting a permanent fix to the Rest And Be Thankful.’

And Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron responded to Scottish Government proposals by saying: ‘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 twenty 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.’

The A83, Argyll’s main trunk road, often closes at the mountain pass due to increasing landslides, despite more than £20 million being spent on heavy-duty fencing and catch pits.

The latest roadside pit at the Rest and be Thankful has been completed at a cost of £1.1 million.

The STPR says a preferred corridor has been identified in Glen Croe. It is expected to take up to ten years to build, at a cost between £268-£860 million. Transport Scotland is also developing ‘a medium term resilient route’ along forest tracks.

Meanwhile, a 2019 survey by Mull and Iona Ferry Committee found ’60 per cent disagreed’ with a tunnel from Mull to Oban.

‘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.

‘Rather than distracting us with grandiose plans for 20 years hence, what is really needed is a two to five-year plan to fix the chronically dysfunctional and expensive ferry system.

‘A tunnel to Mull is by no means an easy task. The most practical place to install a fixed link is across the sound of Mull to Morvern. That would replace the small, dependable and frequent Lochaline-Fishnish ferry.

Lochaline to Fishnish ferry.

‘However, there would still be a strong need to retain a ferry to Oban, 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.

‘The alternative tunnel – to Oban – would need to be about eight miles long, the longest road tunnel in the UK – difficult to be justified for an island of 3,200 people who at the moment show little desire for one.’